Thousands of Migrant Kids Trapped Inside the World’s Border Politics

Displaced war and poverty, fleeing abuse and violence, or just trying to find their parents, youth who get ensnared at U.S. and European border crossings often face bleak conditions, say human rights monitors.

By Michelle Chen Jul 20, 2011

Yolanda had barely made it to the U.S. border after being beaten and raped by smugglers on the route up from El Salvador. When border agents discovered the 16 year old, she was sent to a hospital, stripped and shackled to a bed–just as a precaution, presumably, to ensure she wouldn’t run away. Yolanda was part of an endless stream of children on the run, attempting to enter the U.S. on their own for work, family or just personal safety. Each year, thousands of these "unaccompanied minors" risk their lives to slip through the gates, and end up falling through the cracks. According to a 2010 article by Wendy Young and Megan McKenna, of the advocacy coalition Kids in Need of Defense, the unaccompanied youth population spans the scope of global crises: some are simply trying to get out of poverty. Others are displaced by war, or fleeing abuse, female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Some are struggling to escape local gang violence. Government data indicates that most originate from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The term "unaccompanied" tells only part of their story. Many of these kids seek to reach a parent or relative on the other side of the border. But they must travel alone, exposed to brutal conditions as well as abuse by the coyotes hired to guide them. While many youth trying to enter from Mexico are ensnared by border police and deported straight away, others enter as undocumented immigrants. They are routed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in a disturbingly wide range of settings, from juvenile detention to foster care. In an assessment of immigration detention in the U.S., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently reported satisfactory conditions at the two youth facilities it visited, while voicing concern about reports of abuse of children in federal custody. Their main conclusion, however, was that under international principles of children’s rights, migrant and refugee children should not be detained at all except as a last resort. Despite some significant reforms in recent years, the government’s treatment of unaccompanied youth is not guided by humanitarian precepts, but rather by the logistics of "warehousing" kids until their legal status is resolved. According to a 2009 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission, many unaccompanied children, after braving hell to reach the U.S., are left vulnerable to mistreatment and the crippling loneliness of institutionalization. While it’s hard to expect the immigration bureaucracy to provide quality child care, the system has tried to make itself more kid friendly in recent years, thanks in part to legal challenges over the treatment of child detainees. But investigations by WRC, which documented Yolanda’s case among others, found that while some children were placed in decent settings like group homes, others were placed in "secure" institutions that treated them essentially like youth offenders. Children are particularly exposed to harsh treatment when they initially arrive. In some of the interviews conducted by WRC, children describe the degrading conditions they experienced after they were first "caught" at the border:

Border Patrol agents would shout to wake them up at night, calling them dogs, spitting and giving them food the children described as moldy.

Researchers found that children initially detained by ICE authorities generally lacked basic health care and had "no systematic access to legal representation or rights presentations … and often have no guardian or advocate defending their rights or best interest." That is, they might technically be able to access legal services, but a terrified kid stuck at a detention facility would probably have trouble understanding her basic rights, much less how to locate a free attorney. She may have some other problems to deal with. It’s not uncommon for kids who are in custody to show signs of trauma, either from their experiences in their home countries or from the more acute hardships of their migration. According to research published in WRC’s 2009 report:

Facility staff estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of children need mental health services. Facilities reported that very high percentages of up to 50 percent of children were on psychiatric medication.

This kind of institutionalization only amplifies the trauma that young people experience trying to reach the U.S. But while countless unaccompanied minors are neglected by the system, many do have ties to American communities. A large portion are in fact eventually released to the care of family members or designated sponsors. However, ICE’s hardline enforcement strategies complicate the process of reconnecting youth with their families. Relatives may be deterred by the fear that ICE agents would "use children as ‘bait’" to lure in undocumented adults. One child’s testimony summed up the irony of the chilling effect of these tactics:

I know that I am allowed to have visitors but I have no one to visit me. My parents don’t have papers so they will not come to get me.

The byzantine legal system makes it harder for unaccompanied migrant children to reunify with family, especially when the parents are undocumented. Children typically have little or no control over how their case is handled, even though they should be able to petition independently for relief before a judge.Though they might qualify for asylum or relief as victims of trafficking, their cases are threatened by the courts’ narrow legal interpretations and general lack of legal help. Certain asylum claims, like being targeted by a gang, are especially hard to prove in court, according to Young and McKenna. Jennifer Podkul, program officer for the Detention and Asylum Program of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Colorlines, "The whole crux of it is that these kids are not given attorneys, and so they don’t really have a voice, they don’t really know their options, they don’t know if they have their own claim or not. And that’s probably the biggest problem, and probably the root of this confusion." Outside the U.S., youth who migrate alone have just as little hope of finding refuge. In some European countries, unaccompanied migrant children are extremely vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. In Australia, where anti-immigrant anxieties have surged in reaction to an influx of "boat people," refugee kids are treated as contraband, reports The Australian:

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has signalled his concern at the steady increase in numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in Australia as an "anchor" to secure safe passage for family. Spokeswoman for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Pamela Curr says Immigration has sent letters to 15-year-old refugees in Melbourne informing them that family reunion applications will not be processed within three years.

"This means they will have to stand in line in the humanitarian stream with thousands of others. Everything is now premised on deterrence," she said.

"Deterrence" may be the endgame, but officials should understand that even the most deplorable conditions wouldn’t stem the flow of desperate migrants fleeing economic devastation, death or torture. And any child who arrives alone isn’t going to get turned around easily. Not girls like Yolanda, who discovered she was pregnant as the result of getting raped on her way to the border. Her journey was a one-way trip.