The News Journal | How 13-year-old Marta fell prey to human traffickers
By Chris Ann Kehner, Director of Policy for Polaris
Abandoned by her parents at 13, Marta fell prey to human traffickers in her native Guatemala.
Forced to work in the sex industry for two years, she fled, undertaking a long, arduous journey in search of safety.
Marta – who is real – was found by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and transferred into the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
During her several-month stay in HHS custody, trained child welfare experts screened her. They identified her as a human trafficking survivor and connected her to appropriate social services.
Marta is currently applying for a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, a special protection visa for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents.
Marta received the help and services she needed because of important due process protections provided in a 2008 law: the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. This law recognizes that children from non-contiguous countries who arrive at our borders without adults require specialized screening to assess their protection needs. Many of them are victims of sexual abuse, severe maltreatment or human trafficking. In 2008, Congress unanimously agreed to support this screening process so that children like Marta would not fall back into the hands of their abusers. After its passage, President George W. Bush signed this bill into law without hesitation.
With the enactment of federal laws like the TVPRA, the United States has made great strides in combating modern slavery and aiding victims like Marta. Not only is human trafficking now a federal crime, but state governments have also enacted laws to fight this crime and help victims. Delaware has helped lead the way: In June, Gov. Jack Markell signed Senate Bill 197 into law, which provides increased safeguards for victims, toughens penalties for traffickers and raises awareness of this crime.
Unfortunately, as we praise legislative victories in states like Delaware, the U.S. Congress is considering rolling back the important 2008 protections for vulnerable children like Marta. Overwhelmed by the arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, some members of Congress want children like Marta to be processed within 72 hours, before facing deportation. This proposed policy change would eliminate the key screening Marta underwent, undermine due process and further penalize children who already have limited access to legal counsel. If these changes take hold, children like Marta will face uncertain and dangerous futures.
The influx of so many unaccompanied children is a reflection of the serious humanitarian crisis in which Central American countries are currently consumed. According to a recent United Nations report, no less than 58 percent of unaccompanied children from these countries indicated they were displaced because of abuses that warrant international protection. This number has steadily increased over the last several years and is indicative of a greater need for regional humanitarian intervention. And while the increase of unaccompanied minors arriving at our border in recent months might seem overwhelming, they actually comprise only 0.35 percent of the world’s 17.9 million refugees, a disproportionately small percentage when compared to the collective ability of the United States to protect these vulnerable children.
Marta’s initial screening while in HHS custody was critical in identifying her as a trafficking survivor, and providing her with the help she needed. If Congress removes these essential protections next month when it reconvenes, children like Marta will fall through the cracks and are at risk of being trafficked again.
Delaware has shown its solidarity with trafficking victims. Now, it can do so on a national scale. Join me in calling on Congress to protect the provisions in the TVPRA. Eliminating such minimal protections for expediency’s sake is shortsighted and puts already vulnerable children in increased danger. Congress can and should uphold current policy, and fulfill the promise it made to these children in 2008.
Chris Ann Kehner is the Director of Policy for Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery. Polaris equips communities to identify, report and prevent human trafficking.