By: Roxane Ramos
More than 57,000 unaccompanied migrant children have crossed the U.S.–Mexico border since October. The initial crisis for the U.S. government and border authorities was one of sheltering them and providing for their basic needs. Now that most of the children have been placed with relatives and await immigration hearings, the more ongoing challenge is addressing the reasons they have migrated, and determining who may have a right to stay in the U.S. based on refugee status or humanitarian grounds.
Most of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and have traveled the length of Mexico, fleeing heightened gang violence and threats to their lives. The journey also exposes them to numerous dangers—kidnapping, robbery, extortion, and sex trafficking. U.S. law requires that they be interviewed within 48 hours of arrival, and with the case load hitting record numbers, accelerated screenings have been common. While this can be seen as a form of greater efficiency, speeding up the process comes with a human cost. The children have often experienced trauma and arrive disoriented and fearful. They do not trust the border patrol agents or their interviewers, and want only to reunite with their families. It is common for them to withhold information about crimes and abuses committed against them or that they have witnessed. Moreover, the screeners are not trained in the very specialized skill of interviewing children. And so the authorities fail to discover the very facts that would support a legitimate claim to asylum—abuse, abandonment, crimes and threats to their lives.
In the immigration hearing process that eventually follows, minors are eligible for special juvenile status if they have been abused or abandoned by their family. They can seek asylum if they have suffered life-threatening persecution in their home countries. Or they can apply for visas as victims or witnesses of serious crimes. When these conditions are not captured in the initial screenings of the children, it becomes harder to prove the validity of these claims later on.
The most recent response of the Obama administration is a proposal to set up a processing center in Honduras, to screen children for refugee status or humanitarian parole (a temporary designation based on emergency humanitarian grounds) before they undertake the long and dangerous trek north. There are precedents for this sort of program, and instituting it recognizes the violence in Honduras as a humanitarian emergency, on par with those in Haiti and Vietnam. If successful, this pilot program would be replicated in Guatemala and El Salvador.
The proposal is still in the evaluation stages, with many questions to answer and vocal proponents on both sides. Would such a program be instituted via executive order or congressional approval? Would the United States or the United Nations (who handles such programs in other countries) oversee it? How much would the program cost? How many children could be admitted each year? And—a thorny legal point—does the definition of “refugee” apply to these children? (Refugees are legally defined as “people fleeing their country of origin based on fears of persecution by reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Immigration advocates assert that the “social group” category applies in these cases.)
These questions address the administrative, legal and economic aspects of the crisis, and all have sparked ongoing debate. But the underlying human questions are both deeper and more straightforward: How can we save these children who are in desperate need? Can we look away as they are threatened, exploited, sold, raped and murdered? Can we simply acknowledge the critical importance of reuniting children with their mothers and fathers in a safer place, where they can be loved and protected?
By all accounts, the hearings for the children who have entered the U.S. this past year will overwhelm our immigration court system. The fear is that many of these children will be fast-tracked right back to their countries which could put their lives in danger and not allow for adequate consideration of their individual circumstances and potential claims to asylum. It is critical that in the rush to be efficient or to make this problem “go away,” that these children receive what the Constitution grants everyone within the U.S.—a right to legal counsel, a fair hearing, and basic due process.