Possible U.S. Policy Change on Unaccompanied Minors and the International Legal Obligation of Non-refoulement

The last few weeks have seen numerous reports on the growing number of unaccompanied minors seeking entry to the United States through the Mexican border. The reasons for the uptick in crossings are numerous and complex, and, like the question of whether the children meet the definition of refugees, are not the focus of this post. My question here is a simpler one: whether the adjudication mechanisms under consideration in response to this crisis afford these children a fair hearing focused on a determination of credible fear and other harm which, if identified, would trigger international protection. If the contemplated changes do not comport with a good faith application of the principle of non-refoulement, we run the risk that the U.S. will be in breach of its international obligations.

A “fast-track” process eases the short-term administrative and resource burden at the risk of returning children in need of protection, and would violate the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement, or a prohibition on forcible return, compels States to ensure that no person is forcibly returned to a place where they face persecution, torture or inhuman treatment. In the context of refugee law, States have an obligation of non-refoulement until a negative refugee status determination has been made and States have a good faith obligation to ensure that this takes place. Refoulement can be explicit or it can be constructive, but the UNHCR has stated that it applies at the border, even before an entry is made.

While U.S. law does not explicitly recognize the obligation of non-refoulement, U.S. Immigration Law has a number of built-in protections to prevent the return of individuals to countries where they may face persecution, inhuman treatment or torture, including “withholding from removal” (where removal proceedings are ongoing and there is a high probability that life or freedom would be threatened upon return) and “asylum” for refugees physically present within the US.

There are also multiple mechanisms specific to minors in the immigration system under U.S. law. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), created a two-tiered system that separates arrivals into two groups: citizens of contiguous countries (mainly Mexico) and citizens of non-contiguous countries.  Children from non-contiguous countries or children who are found to be vulnerable to trafficking, who express a credible fear, or who are deemed unable to make a determination on voluntary return, are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for formal deportation proceedings. During this time, they are able to make an asylum claim and seek relief under the withholding provision, in addition to other forms of relief. As immigration courts remain backlogged, the children are placed with families while proceedings are pending. This takes anywhere from a year and half to five years to resolve. Minors arriving from contiguous countries (Mexico or Canada) who are deemed capable of requesting voluntary return and do not fit the risk criteria are processed within 48 hours and returned “home.”

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