What is it like to be a migrant child forced to flee your homeland? Arriving in the US to the promise of safety and opportunity, but instead being met with distain and alienation?
In this article, Larisa explores the journey of Latin American migrant children to the US and the systems put in place for their arrival.
Who are these children?
Imagine your younger self as a ten-year-old daydreamer with baggy hand-me-downs, living in a toxic and poverty-ridden environment where your education and health are at stake. Your life is threatened by gangs, organised crime, neglect and abuse in a country with few opportunities. Your family has already fled this nightmare, but your three-year-old sister is still with you, and you long to join your parents wherever they are.
You are an abandoned child whose parents have migrated to the US in search of a more prosperous life. You were left behind with relatives who are now making arrangements for you and your little sister to join la caravana migrante, a large group of migrants that travel on foot across Latin America to reach the US border. You probably started your journey from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, from a house that resembled more a metal shipping container than a home. Your hope is to join your parents to start a new life away from the violence and lack of opportunities in your home country. This journey is not without risks, but you judge it to be the safest option with the greatest chance of receiving assistance from governments and NGOs.
Sadly, this is the reality for an almost countless number of Latino children migrating to the US. The terrors these children leave behind are supplemented by the struggles they encounter on the journey and the treatment they receive once in the US where immigrants are legally labelled aliens.
The journey to the US
This journey en masse is risky but safer than trying to enter the US border with the help of smugglers who charge unreasonable rates for their “services”. Migrants who have walked the route mention that a significant number of people die during these journeys, while others are kidnapped, or physically and sexually assaulted. Sometimes they even become victims of mass execution or human trafficking organised by international criminal groups.
If not faced with these dangers, children may die of improper nutrition, lack of shelter or extreme fatigue caused by the long journey and the scorching heat. The list of dangers is long, but that doesn’t stop most of them.
Navigating the US immigration system
Unfortunately, the United States is no dreamland and its gates are guarded. Unlike most migrants who avoid the Border Patrol, children know their safest bet is to throw themselves into the hands of the law and, inevitably, into detention. This allows them to enter the US immigration system where their cases are picked up by legal authorities, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These agencies share responsibility for unaccompanied children and undergo an examination process aimed at assessing whether the child is to be accepted in the US or repatriated. This process involves interviews, medical testing, document investigation, and navigating a complex legal system often without any judicial help.
"the system denies around 72% of child applicants asylum"
This same system denies about 72% of child applicants asylum, a percentage that has been gradually increasing over the years. If it is decided that the children in question are not at risk of trafficking or that their request for entry can be withdrawn, then they must safely return home. However, once back in their country they are once more exposed to the violence and abuse which they had originally tried to flee whilst now also being stigmatised by their communities for having left.
The children already in the US who have been victims of parental abuse or human trafficking are offered legal protection, and special visas that allow them to remain in the country for up to 4 years to assist in investigations or prosecutions of human trafficking violators.
In truth, staying under detention waiting for entry approval may not be a great alternative. In 2019, at least seven children died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection. Children arrive at the border exhausted from the journey, with some suffering from underlying health conditions. Nevertheless, this does not explain the inadequacy of the holding facilities which have been criticised for poor hygiene, crammed cells, uncooked or under-nutritional food, and lack of sleep. Immigrants call them hieleras, a Spanish word meaning icebox or cooler. A two-and-a-half-year-old boy died of pneumonia in these conditions.
"In 2019, at least seven children died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection"
Other countries, such as Spain, offer residency to unaccompanied children until they become legal adults at the age of eighteen. Italy has even implemented a policy that ensures no child migrant will be deported out of the country. In comparison, the US treats these children first and foremost as immigrants who have illegally entered the territory. They must therefore either prove they deserve asylum or return to their home countries.
The recent pandemic has also caused a spike in deportations under an emergency public health order. These deported children are now under more danger as they are faced with the prospect of living through a global health crisis without adequate access to emergency services or health care. At the moment, every journey to the US border exposes them to a greater chance of contracting the virus in environments where they may not receive any medical help, while they are also more likely of being deported once they reach the border.
Immigration policies under past administrations
Presidential administrations have always struggled to deal with this situation. When the numbers of unaccompanied children dramatically increased in 2014, Barack Obama declared it a ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ and implemented a series of mixed policies that both protected and repressed immigrant children. To avoid an uncontrollable influx that threatened to overwhelm the immigration system, Obama’s administration increased funding to externalise border control to Mexico. This meant that once in Mexican territory, children were at risk of being deported back to their countries without ever reaching the US. On the other hand, the government also increased funding and support for existing immigration law that protected them. This translated into better chances of obtaining legal representation and, thus, a better shot at securing a visa and avoiding deportation.
"Obama's contradictory approach of protection and repression was replaced by complete criminalisation under the Trump presidency"
Obama’s contradictory approach of protection and repression was replaced by complete criminalisation under the Trump presidency. He accused immigrant families of exploiting “loopholes” in the immigration system, and equated teenagers with gang members bringing violence into the country. This rhetoric was further used to increase fear of migrants and to attack legal protections for migrant children. The government announced a zero-tolerance policy in April 2018 under which all unauthorised immigrant adults were detained and incarcerated while waiting for an immigration court date. Underaged children that accompanied these adults were separated from their families and categorised as unaccompanied children. After much protest, this policy was revoked, and families were reunited. However, hundreds of children are still waiting for their parents to claim them.
The Trump administration also increased detention periods, narrowed asylum criteria for migrant children, terminated funding for their legal representation, and pushed back cases in immigration courts. Under the guise of ensuring national protection and secure borders, such policies have been used to undermine existing protections for these children. The administration’s rationale was that the immigration system was overwhelmed by the escalating numbers in arrivals. Nevertheless, this neglects the duty of governments to protect children no matter the circumstances.
Biden’s immigration reform
The future under the Biden administration looks more promising for Latin America’s migrant children. He recognises that the United States’ history reflects a melting pot of multiple nationalities, and that immigration is an essential part of its identity. Through his immigration reform he plans to reverse all policies that have devastated asylum-seeking families. The separation of children and parents at the border will be abolished, along with prolonged child detention. Priority will be given to those children whose parents have not yet been found, and local communities and institutions will work together to make sure immigrant families are protected.
His administration will also update and invest in programmes that allows left-behind children seeking to reunite with US relatives to apply for entry from their home countries without having to undertake the dangerous journey to the US. He also recognises that the root causes of migration are the dangerous living conditions in Central America and aims to address them by offering a $4 billion assistance package to the region. This is designed to improve the economic and social situation in these countries and which will, hopefully, ease migratory pressures.
A beam of hope at the end of the tunnel?
Hopefully, if these promises are kept, hundreds of thousands of migrant children may perhaps finally find the much-needed shelter and protection that they have long sought. Regardless of our views on the merits of immigration, it is the responsibility of governments and institutions to protect the more vulnerable and ensure appropriate policies are arranged and implemented.