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Trump is stripping immigrant children of protections, critics say. Supporters say he's closing loopholes

Andrea Castillo, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In the nearly four years since Alexis arrived alone in the United States as a 17-year-old from El Salvador, he has been granted asylum, learned English, secured a job at a bakery and studied for his upcoming driver's license exam. This month he'll file an application for permanent residency.

Now 21, Alexis feared being targeted by gangs in El Salvador that had beat up his sister and killed boys in his neighborhood for refusing to join. Living with his aunt and uncle in south Los Angeles, Alexis finally feels safe.

None of that would have been possible if Alexis were applying for asylum now. Recent significant changes by the Trump administration to asylum policy for children who arrived in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian mean that he wouldn't qualify.

"When I decided to come to the United States, that was a risk of my life," he said. "They should help us more than they are trying to right now. We are humans as well. We have rights."

The policy shift is the latest in a string of reversals by the administration in protections for immigrant children, who have been the most prominent collateral damage in its crackdown on migrants at the southern border. As the overarching flow of migration has gradually shifted from mostly single men coming from Mexico to entire families coming from Central America, images of children being torn from their parents and held in cages have shocked the world and outraged not only immigrant rights groups and progressive voters but also many who otherwise back Trump's policies.

Administration supporters argue that child migrants often are used, by family members and strangers, in an exploitative way as cover for illegal activity.

 

David Inserra, immigration policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the challenge is how to make humanitarian programs like asylum help persecuted people but prevent others from abusing the help.

Too many loopholes incentivize people to bring or send their children to the U.S., Inserra said. He said the 1997 Flores Act, which limited the amount of time that children can be held in captivity, and the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which allows unaccompanied children to seek asylum in an interview with a trained asylum officer, had unintended consequences and that the administration is doing what it can to fix those problems, given Congress' inability to enact necessary reforms, he added.

"I think we all want to protect children, to make sure that they're treated well," Inserra said. "But I think we also need to do everything in our power to make sure there aren't as many children coming to our border."

The changes to asylum for unaccompanied children come as the federal government struggles with the arrival of thousands of Central Americans at the southern border. With more than 760,000 people apprehended by Border Patrol as of July -- already a 92% increase over last year with two months left in fiscal 2019 -- immigration authorities say they're overwhelmed by the surge. Monthly totals have decreased significantly since May, which DHS credits to stepped up enforcement by the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.

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