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Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at Hearing, “Dangerous Passage: Central America in Crisis and the Exodus of Unaccompanied Minors”

Washington, DC –  U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing titled “Dangerous Passage: Central America in Crisis and the Exodus of Unaccompanied Minors.”

“We are here today because we have a humanitarian crisis on our southern border – now a refugee crisis – which, I would argue, requires an emergency response domestically and the urgent recalibration of our foreign policy.

“Just as it’s important that we address this humanitarian crisis, in my view, it’s equally important that we don’t rush to change our laws in a way that would strip these children of their rights to due process. In dealing with this crisis, it is imperative that we understand its root causes and why it is not about America putting out a welcome mat, it’s about a desperate effort by desperate parents to do what any parent would do to protect their child from violence and the threat of death.

“We have with us two panels of experts who will help us fully understand the factors that have driven nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children in the past nine months alone to flee their countries and seek refuge in the U.S.

“This past weekend, in a piece in the New York Times by Pulitzer Prize winning author Sonia Nazario – who is on our second panel today – wrote about Christian Omar Reyes, a sixth grader.  His father was murdered by gangs while working as a security guard. Three people he knows were murdered this year.  Four others were gunned down on a corner near his house in the first two weeks of the year.  A girl his age was beaten, had a hole cut in her throat, her body left in a ravine across from his house.  Christian said it’s time to leave – he will flee his country and will try to come to the United States this year.

“Or Carlos Baquedana, a 14 year old who worked in a dump picking scrap metal when he was a boy – making a dollar or two a day. When he was 9 years old, he barely escaped two drug traffickers who were trying to rape him. When he was 10, the drug traffickers pressured him to try drugs and join a gang. He has known 8 people who were murdered, three killed in front of him. In one case he watched as two hit-men brazenly shot two young brothers execution style. Carlos wants to be an engineer or a mechanic, but even going to school is too dangerous for him now.

“These stories are the tragic stories of life-changing experiences that too many children face in Central America every day – tens of thousands of children like Christian and Carlos whose stories are unknown, but no less tragic.

“For me, as someone who has closely followed Latin America for decades, the current crisis in Central America is no less shocking than for anyone else, but it also doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

“At the end of civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s and 1990s, we did not pay enough attention to the region. We did not remain sufficiently engaged with our Central American neighbors. We did not work closely enough with them to address the structural problems of social and economic development or the societal violence that  is fueling today’s crisis.

“I have complained strongly and argued forcefully that the years of cuts to the region would come at our own peril. Besides the deep poverty, we have enormous challenges in Central America – where we have the confluence of major trafficking to the United States, where we have gangs that have dramatically increased in El Salvador from 600 to 40,000, then of course human traffickers who take advantage of those set of circumstances. 

“And the efforts that we failed to take end up now with a crisis on our southern border. Year after year when we reviewed budgets of this and past administrations, I have said that our constant cuts to Latin America and Central America will come at a price. And, unfortunately, in part we are seeing that price today.

“So, we’re going to spend $3.4 billion to deal with consequences of the causes in Central America when we will deal luckily – luckily, cause we’ve only spent $110 million in five Central American countries under this proposal of $300 million to deal with the core issues of citizen security, of combating the traffickers, of combating the drug cartels, of combating the gangs. $300 million – $3.4 billion. It would seem to me that at some point we would focus on the core problem so that we don’t have the consequences in our country of the challenges, of the deep issues that are facing Central America as it relates to citizen security.

“One other point – although this hearing is about root causes and how we might deal with it – let me just take the moment and personal privilege to say that I oppose the changing of the existing law.  There is a reason why that law was passed. It was passed to say that non-contiguous nations, if you are fleeing 2,000 miles to try to come to the United States, there may be a greater probability that you have a real case to be made for asylum, because you have a credible fear for the loss of your life.  Which under our law – as I hear those who advocate for the rule of law – I agree, under our law, is very clear.  Now if you flee 2,000 miles and you were told by the gangs join or die, if you were raped and you flee 2,000 miles not to ever experience that tragic and traumatic set of circumstances. You don’t come with anything but the clothing on your back. And when you get here to the United States, you are going to need a reasonable period of time to be able to produce the facts to make that case.  That doesn’t come with you.

“And so I understand the desire to accelerate the process, but accelerating without due process is not acceptable. I believe the law presently has a series of provisions in it that would give the administration the wherewithal to accelerate, but with due process. So, I support the efforts for the resources that are necessary to meet the challenge. But by the same token, those who just have a different view about what this law was intended to do – which passed with broad bipartisan support in both houses of the Congress and signed by a Republican president – is not something I personally can accept.

“Today, I hope we will hear our panelists views on the root causes of the problem – and more broadly – the short and long term strategies that will strengthen governance and the rule of law in these countries, restore public confidence in an effective justice system and civilian police force that dismantles the human smuggling networks bringing these children to our border, make sure that the children and families deported from the U.S. receive sufficient attention and support when they arrive home, and how we can lay a strong foundation for the social and economic development of Central America so that these children have a more prosperous future.“