On Tuesday, President Donald Trump hosted an event aimed at combating MS-13, a gang founded in Los Angeles and consisting largely of Central American men. During the event, Trump expressed concerns with US immigration policies he described as “stupid” while claiming that MS-13 members, as well as the other “rapists” and “murderers,” use loopholes in American law to enter the country and cause harm. But what the president was referring to as a loophole is actually a program created for the protection of immigrant children attempting to escape violence.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is the only American law that defines what exactly a human trafficking victim is. Under the act, a trafficking victim is a person “induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion.” Beyond establishing means for prosecuting human traffickers, amendments to the TVPA protect unaccompanied immigrant children who are fleeing to the U.S. for safety reasons. Despite the president’s multiple attempts to link the law to the entrance of MS-13 gang members, neither he or his administration have managed to present any data to support the claim that the act weakens border protections. There is, however, a glut of data suggesting that the children who flee Central America to enter the US are fleeing genuine danger.
Most El Salvadorans who come to the United State are fleeing extreme violence. In El Salvador, the murder rate peaked at an outrageous 104 per 100,000 residents in 2015. Many of the El Salvadorians subject to that violence are young children and of those murdered, more than one-fourth are girls under 19. Without the TVPA, the girls fleeing El Salvador and Mexico would be immediately deported upon capture. Instead, these kids are given a chance to make their case in front of an immigration judge. Even with the law in place, being granted entry can still be a long shot, as most of the people do so without legal counsel.
Of the Central Americans apprehended at the border in 2014, 52,000 were children, and after being interviewed by the UN, it was determined that more than two-thirds of them had suffered in ways that warranted refugee protection.
President Trump, instead of focusing on that suffering majority, has focused on violence in America and, in particular, on the murders of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens. Both women were brutally killed by MS-13 gang members in 2016. The Justice Department has never suggested that their killers entered the U.S. as unaccompanied Central American immigrants or taken advantage of the TVPA.
Trump’s approach, it is important to note, is not unique. When the US realized MS-13 was a potential threat in 1990, the Clinton administration ramped up efforts to deport foreign-born residents convicted of crimes. This resulted in thousands of gang members flooding into Central America. The fact that there is now an uptick in children fleeing from gang violence in this region makes perfect sense. It’s no secret that children subjected to violence or who come from broken homes are more likely to join gangs as well either.
Should the current administration continue to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the TVPA or even attempt to circumvent it by legislative means, it will effectively put thousands of immigrant children in danger.