The House just passed a bill that will subject thousands of Central American children to deportation to places of torture and lethal violence.

By Joanne Lin, Senior Managing Director, Government and Advocacy Affairs, Amnesty International USA and Brian Chang, AIUSA Government Relations Fellow

On September 14, 2017, the House passed the misleadingly named “Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act” (H.R. 3697). Amnesty International USA (“AIUSA”) opposed this bill, which will endanger children and youth fleeing gang violence in Central America.

Young girls sexually exploited by criminal gangs. Young boys forced to join violent gangs or to be killed by them. Children who describe how family members are killed before their very eyes. This is the reality of thousands of children fleeing gang violence in the Northern Triangle region of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

El Salvador and Honduras have among the highest levels of violence in the world, with homicide rates of 81.2 and 59 killings per 100,000 people, while Guatemala has a homicide rate of 27.3 killings per 100,000 people, fueled by gang violence. (By contrast, the homicide rate in the U.S. is 4.9 murders per 100,000 people.)

In our 2017 Facing Walls report, Amnesty International documented 113 cases of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle. 86 percent said that they fled because of major threats to their life. 27 percent mentioned the murder of a close family member or close contact in recent years.

“I left everything behind. My community was really fond of me. This year I was going to graduate from college and contribute to my community. That was my dream.”

A 34-year-old woman from El Salvador who was forced to flee her rural community with her four sons after a gang beat her son and husband, raided her house, and threatened to kill them.

“In my neighbourhood often bodies are found in the street, people are shot dead, killed. So many things. Even if I wanted, I can’t go back to my country.” Camilo*, a 17-year-old Honduran currently seeking asylum in the US interviewed by Amnesty in February 2017.

The House-passed bill would endanger these individuals and thousands of other people fleeing torture, gang violence, and lethal violence in Central America. H.R. 3697 would make it impossible for a child to be admitted to the U.S. if a Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) officer suspects that the child is associated with a “criminal gang.” H.R. 3697 would bar all forms of refugee protection from anyone whom DHS or an immigration judge “has reason to believe” is or has been a member of a criminal gang or who has participated in the group’s activities, including non-criminal activities.

The combination of an overly broad definition of “criminal gang” and an impermissibly low “reason to believe” standard will result in the deportation of Central American children back to conditions of torture or lethal violence.

As a global leader in refugee protection, the U.S. has long been a beacon of hope for those fleeing torture and violence. Congress has long recognized the vulnerabilities of children and has worked in a bipartisan manner to protect children from suffering further exploitation and violence. AIUSA urges the Senate to reject H.R. 3697 and calls on Congress to provide a safe haven for these children.

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