Convention on the Rights of the Child
Respect for human dignity serves as an important foundation for international human rights. In the context of migration and the aftermath of World War II, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention were written to affirm countries’ obligation to honor and uphold the value of the human person. However, these treaties and declarations only identified the rights of adults. It took nearly forty years for the international community to address an overlooked demographic: children.
In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which recognized countries’ obligation to protect children and their rights, regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents. The CRC paved the way for nations to be held accountable to higher standards of treatment of vulnerable populations under the age of 18 and was recognized as “the first significant steps toward creating a world in which any child—even the most vulnerable separated immigrant child—can be aided to reach his or her full potential.” The United States played a fundamental role in the drafting of the CRC, which one United Nations member nation has yet to ratify.
The United States.
The US government’s refusal to ratify the CRC has ethical repercussions within the international community. Seeing the US, a driving force in the drafting of the CRC, refuse to ratify it sends a message that it is acceptable to shirk moral responsibility and emboldens other nations to follow suit. Not only has the US refused to accept moral leadership, it has set an abhorrent precedent for the treatment of children in recent years. Since 2017, we have witnessed and documented the Trump Administration’s series of attacks on the immigrant population, during which children have been used as political pawns of family separations, subjected to detainment in clandestine hotels, and rapidly expelled without proper review, to name a few examples.
Family Separation Crisis
Eighteen months into the Trump presidency, the family separation crisis shined a spotlight on the US and the measures willing to be taken to curb migration by implementing the “zero tolerance” policy. That year, Jeff Sessions said: “If you cross the border unlawfully… we will prosecute you. If you’re [with] a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
This policy contradicted the laws established in the 1980 Refugee Act. US immigration law asserts that it is illegal to cross the border outside of designated ports of entry and/or without the proper paperwork. However, it also recognizes that refugees fleeing persecution, violence, or even death sometimes arrive at borders without the proper paperwork. Therefore, the US claimed in its own law that asylum seekers are not to be subjected to prosecution upon apprehension, rather granted a ‘credible fear interview’ to explain and detail the persecution they are fleeing so that they can enter asylum proceedings, obtain necessary paperwork, and make a case for their asylum claim. The “zero tolerance” policy, however, denied migrants this due process and separated parents from their children in the process.
Images of families in cages and toddlers crying for their parents are branded in our minds when we remember the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy. More than two years later, a watchdog report obtained by the New York Times was released last week uncovering conversations among top officials of the Department of Homeland Security and Jeff Sessions who himself told a group of five US attorneys that “we need to take away children.” The report, based on interviews with more than 45 top officials, states: “The department’s single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and effective implementation of the policy, especially with regard to prosecution of family-unit adults and the resulting child separations.”
Because of the global outcry in response to this crisis, President Trump signed an executive order ending the “zero tolerance” policy the month following its nation-wide implementation. However, by then, the damage was done: 2,654 immigrant children had been separated, according to the ACLU, which sadly considers this an undercount as a result of inadequate documentation within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Parents had been deported, children remained in US custody for months, and irreparable trauma was both caused and triggered by these cruel separations.
A Continued Track Record
The family separation crisis of 2018 set the tone for what would follow. Since then, the Trump Administration has accelerated its disregard for the protection of children, the most vulnerable of all the migrants. They have attempted to rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which protects approximately 700,000 young people who were brought to the United States as minors. However, it was put on “life support” in June when the Supreme Court ruled “in favor” of DACA, only because the Trump Administration did not file the paperwork correctly in attempting to terminate the program. Trump has already threatened to terminate DACA again, saving it as a post-election priority.
While DACA was being reviewed by the Supreme Court, DHS was rapidly expelling children along the US-Mexico border. With the onset of the pandemic, the Trump Administration approved and promoted keeping family units and unaccompanied minors, including children as young as 12 months, in clandestine hotels, cared for by border agents, only to rapidly expel them. Since March of this year, 9,000 have been expelled without having the opportunity to show evidence of the persecution they are potentially fleeing. This practice violates US law which stipulates that children must be referred to the ORR within seventy-two hours of apprehension so that they can be detained in child-appropriate facilities and then promptly released to a sponsor in the US. Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project states, “this whole process is egregious, period. It is a violation…of every single protection that these children have.” She referred to this situation as children being held in “essentially black sites, with no access to the outside world. And not only no access to the outside world, but no access to the immigration system.”
When we reflect back on these policies, we and the entire international community are able to see that this administration is willing to use children as tools of deterrence, deport a population of 700,000 young people who are more American than anything else, and expel minors without ever giving them access to the immigration system. These cases and policies made headlines. DACA went to the Supreme Court. Dozens of Senate members publicly condemned hotel detainment which faced litigation that appeared in the national news. There was a global outcry during the “zero tolerance” policy. The world has been watching and condemning the alarming trend in the US’s treatment of migrant families and children. But who is paying attention to the children in Nogales?
Children and Parents in Nogales
From January to October 2020, KBI has provided services to 509 children below the age of 18, many of whom have been waiting with their families in Nogales, Sonora for months and some for more than a year to seek protection in the U.S. For families seeking asylum who have been returned to Nogales under ’Remain in Mexico’/MPP, their court dates have been repeatedly postponed, and many will not be heard by a judge until the spring and summer of 2021. One asylum seeker, a Honduran woman named Yolani, who was returned to Nogales under MPP in January with her 14-year-old daughter, describes the situation as “having our lives on hold” and that being returned to Mexico is like “having been returned to [our] predators.”
These sentiments are echoed by other migrants who are in Nogales with their children. After receiving death threats from the Venezuelan government, Josefa fled North last December with her ten-year-old son, Lester. They were both returned to Nogales earlier this year as part of the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, where they both express feeling unsafe.
“You come to ask a country for help and that country closes its doors and sends you to another country where you feel the same or even worse than you did in your own,” says Josefa. “I say worse because at least [in Venezuela] I was with family and friends. Here I don’t have anyone and I’m exposed to everything. It terrifies me that something will happen to me; what would come of my son, left in the hands of a stranger…”
Mexican border towns are marked by the presence of organized crime, human trafficking, corrupt government entities, and violence in which migrants are particularly vulnerable. Lester, although only ten years old, is aware of this dynamic and expresses his own fear: “I am afraid to be here in Mexico. It scares me when I go out with my mom because they say they kidnap children here. I always stay by mom’s side.” Josefa describes the heightened state of anxiety in which she and Lester live, lamenting that this is the context in which her son has lived for almost a year in Nogales. “He is too young to have to go through all this for the simple fact that authoritarian people who rule a country don’t think of our humanity.”
The Psycho-Emotional Effects on Children
The KBI psychologist, Alma Reynoso states that “the process of migration in ‘normal’ situations–without the pandemic and with the border functioning–tends to impact the emotional stability and psychological well-being of children. However, now with the closure of the borders and the uncertainty that has remained due to the pandemic, these states of instability are more severe.” She explains that children and adolescents experience a breakdown of identity, while younger children face problems in the development of their identity. They live in a constant state of change and uncertainty without feeling they belong to a place and so enter into a state of grieving. They experience a deep feeling of chronic loss for having been removed from their place of origin, in some cases overnight without prior preparation. Alma worries that the longer they live in uncertainty, the more they will develop feelings of hopelessness and frustration that, in the long term, will give rise to psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and emotional crisis.
Children Seeking Asylum March
Our concern for migrant families and children seeking asylum runs deep; therefore, the SaveAsylum coalition, made up of civil society groups in the U.S and Mexico, dedicates the October 21st SaveAsylum action to migrant children in Nogales who are enduring prolonged and unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety. Additionally, we lift up the resilient parents, guardians, and family members who have chosen these journeys to provide a better future for their children.
In the Children Seeking Asylum March, as part of the ongoing #SaveAsylum campaign, migrant children and their families will walk from downtown Nogales, Sonora to the port of entry for a moment of prayer offered by child asylum seekers. The children will then lead the group from the port of entry to the border wall where supporters and advocates on the U.S. side will receive them and listen to children share their testimonies. Children at Kino have prepared statements and prayers that they will share on the day of the event, including 10-year-old Fanny Fabiola from Guerrero, Mexico. Her statement addressed to President Trump reads: “Mister President, there are a lot of children and adults, asking, begging that you give us asylum in your country because in our countries, we are not safe. Mister President, please open the gate. We pray that God touches your heart and you help us because we have suffered a lot here.”
Whereas we recognize the hardship that these children asylum seekers have endured, this action will also serve as a moment to hear about the dreams of children and what they hope to one day become. May their dreams inspire us to continue to advocate so they are given the opportunity to make them a reality. Child asylum seekers and their parents invite you to join us in lifting up these testimonies and hopes. When asked what her message is to those in the United States, Yolani states: “Think of our children. For those of you who have children, they deserve the best, right? Well so do ours….we come to give a better life to our children.”