The Border Crisis Takes a Pause From Politics

At an ad-hoc hearing during a packed day, the actual unaccompanied minors took the focus.

Saul Martinez pauses as tells the story of escaping his home country of El Salvador in April of 2014 after he was threatened by local gang members during a hearing before the Congressional Progressive Caucus July 29, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
July 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

The street was one that Saul Mar­tinez traveled of­ten. He took it on his way to school, where he would avoid gang mem­bers, fear­ing re­cruit­ment. And he’d use it on his way home, where he’d grab his bi­cycle only to re­ceive death threats from gang mem­bers dur­ing his ride.

And one day, on that street in El Sal­vador, the same street he lived on, he saw a man die after be­ing shot mul­tiple times.

Wear­ing a crisp but­ton-down shirt and khaki pants, the 15-year-old calmly told his story to a pan­el of Con­gress mem­bers at a Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus ad-hoc hear­ing Tues­day af­ter­noon. He told of liv­ing in fear in a coun­try where gang mem­bers re­cruit young chil­dren and where a re­fus­al can have ser­i­ous con­sequences.

In April, he crossed the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, just one of the tens of thou­sands of chil­dren flee­ing Cent­ral Amer­ica’s North­ern Tri­angle to seek refuge in the United States.

“I don’t want to go back to my coun­try be­cause I don’t want to die,” he told the caucus in Span­ish Tues­day af­ter­noon.

A hear­ing of this kind is largely sym­bol­ic. But after the last few weeks of polit­ic­al scram­bling over an emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al bill, the ad-hoc hear­ing put the chil­dren back in the spot­light.

On Tues­day, the bor­der crisis was a center­piece on Cap­it­ol Hill, much like it’s been since the Ju­ly Fourth re­cess. House Re­pub­lic­ans un­veiled a plan to al­loc­ate $659 mil­lion for emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al funds. The House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee held a hear­ing to ex­am­ine the White House’s policies for U.S. Cit­izen­ship and Im­mig­ra­tion Ser­vices. And polit­ic­al spar­ring en­sued over the pos­sib­il­ity of the Sen­ate at­tempt­ing to add com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form to any House-passed bill.

There’s little time left be­fore the Au­gust re­cess to re­con­cile the polit­ic­al di­vides between the House’s $659 mil­lion and the Sen­ate’s $2.7 bil­lion bor­der crisis plan. The pos­sib­il­ity of changes to a 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law has be­come a main stick­ing point for both parties. House Re­pub­lic­ans fa­vor tweaks to al­low Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren to opt for vol­un­tary re­mov­al; many Demo­crats and im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates dis­agree.

The bill com­ing to the House floor does not con­tain “ad­equate re­sources” for leg­al ser­vices for chil­dren — who of­ten go without rep­res­ent­a­tion — nor does it call for a suf­fi­cient num­ber of im­mig­ra­tion judges, House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said at the ad-hoc hear­ing Tues­day. This is­sue is more than just polit­ics, Pelosi said.

“It’s not just about hav­ing a heart,” she said. “It’s about hav­ing a soul.”

The Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus and House Demo­crats have their eyes on bring­ing the at­ten­tion back on the chil­dren, which could help build their case that an emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al with ample funds is needed.

On Tues­day, three chil­dren sat in front of mem­bers to ex­plain just why they crossed the bor­der and their deal­ings with U.S. agen­cies upon their ar­rival.

Dulce Med­ina, 15, told of a man in Guatem­ala who tried to sexu­ally as­sault her and her cous­in while they were walk­ing to her school.

Mayeli Hernan­dez, 12, told of wit­ness­ing two murders in Hon­dur­as.

And Saul Mar­tinez told of how there was too little food and one bath­room for 200 chil­dren in the U.S. de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies’ quar­ters.

And as the ad-hoc hear­ing con­cluded — and though it holds no real polit­ic­al weight — the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus had thrust the chil­dren’s stor­ies back in­to the lime­light. At least for a little while.

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