On Thursday, November 13th, Loyola University Chicago’s Center for the Human Rights of Children hosted a day long teach-in event, The Child Migrant: Children Crossing Borders.1 The purpose of this day-long educational program was to provide Loyola students and the community an opportunity to learn more about this critical children’s rights issue. This event not only satisfied its purpose, it greatly exceeded it. The panel members who were present for the sessions were phenomenal experts in their fields: Pulitzer Prize author, Sonia Nazario, immigration attorneys and advocates from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and the National Immigrant Justice Center, Catholic activists working at the border, child trauma experts, human rights scholars, political scientists, and subject matter experts.
Over the summer, the issue of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexican border was in the spotlight. Since then, the issue has all but dropped out of the media, as concerns about Ebola and ISIS have taken over. However, migrant children are still flocking towards the United States, seeking safety from the only homes they’ve ever known. These children would rather risk dying on the treacherous journey to the United States than face almost certain death at the hands of gangs in their home countries. The children who do make it to the United States border are then detained in harsh conditions, detention which is actually illegal under international law and United States law. They are detained in cold facilities, often sleep on concrete floors, and are fed very little. These children are still in need of our help, and we cannot forget about them just because the media attention has faded.
Between the morning and afternoon sessions, I had the privilege to hear Ms. Nazario speak.2 Ms Nazario is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and author of Enrique’s Journey, the gripping tale of the children who make their way from their home countries to the United States border by any means necessary. Ms. Nazario spoke emphatically about her own experiences, as well as why the issue of migrant children is one that must be acted upon immediately. She spoke with such passion and honesty that she moved most people in the room to tears. Her basic message was that we need to act, immediately. We need to recognize that these children are humans, and humans deserve to have their basic human rights upheld, especially by the country that claims to believe in rights above all else. Sadly, she lamented, this country treats dogs better than we treat migrant children. If dogs were being victimized and traumatized and dealt with in the way that the United States treats migrant children, people would be up in arms almost immediately. This was so difficult to listen to because it was so true. Most people regard these helpless children as criminals, but they are just victims of circumstance trying to survive.
When children arrive at the border, they are met with Border Patrol officers clad in uniforms and carrying guns. These Border Patrol officers then screen children to determine if they are fearful of returning to their home countries. If they have credible fear, they are then supposed to undergo a credible fear interview. Why does the current policy and practice of having border patrol officers screen children at the border fall short of meeting basic human rights? Because the last person these children can trust in their home country is a person in a uniform. Corruption is everywhere, and children are taught not to speak to authority figures because word of such conversations will get back to the gangs who really run these countries. How can a child, who has always feared those in a uniform, open up to such a person in a matter of hours? How can they be expected to divulge their most traumatized self? In the United States, those charged with and convicted of murder are entitled to an attorney. But migrant children are not. Immigration law is more complex than tax law, how can a child possibly argue for themselves in a foreign court? Half of the children who make it before the courts qualify to stay in the United States, but they never get this opportunity because they do not have an advocate who knows how to communicate this and can navigate the very confusing legal landscape.
The speakers noted the hypocrisy in that this country shows such deep concern for girls being kidnapped in Nigeria, but not for those children who are being victimized in countries within our own hemisphere. Our First Lady poses with a picture asking to “Bring back our girls,” while her husband advocates for Central American children to be turned away at the borders. Children who are victims of circumstance and fleeing for their lives. We mandate that other countries allow Syrian refugees asylum, but we turn our own refugees away. Is there not something wrong with this picture? We in the United States claim to be the great protectors of human rights. But we do not extend these rights to children who are fleeing for their lives. Instead, we lock them up, traumatize them, stick them in court alone, and try to send them back to their home countries that they have fled in order to preserve their lives. We criminalize these children, making them pariahs in this country and in their own when they are returned. We try to slam the door in the faces of as many children as possible. Because these children are obviously criminals who came to our border to take advantage of our social service and education systems. This could not be further from the truth.
While President Obama’s recent announcement about his plans to issue an executive order pertaining to immigration relief for undocumented immigrants has brought good news to millions of undocumented immigrants, it does nothing for those undocumented and unaccompanied migrant children who have been flocking to our borders. There is no relief on the horizon for these children, they will continue to risk their lives in order to make it to the United States, only to be met with harsh conditions and more terrifying situations. Although, given the current political landscape and the political polarization that has gripped this Congress, the executive action proposed by President Obama may face its own difficulties.
These plans include a shift in deportation practices from all undocumented immigrants to a greater focus on the deportation of criminals, rather than families. Also, more undocumented immigrants will be protected from deportation proceedings, under this plan. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) will be expanded so that young unauthorized migrants who came to the United States as children will be granted temporary protection and work permits. This expanded DACA program will now apply to immigrants who are older than 30 now, but still entered before they were 16, and immigrants who entered after 2007, but before 2010, are now eligible for DACA. Anyone who has arrived after 2010 will not be eligible for DACA protection. Additionally, four million parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders will be covered under a new program where parents who’ve been in the country for at least five years will qualify even if their citizen or green-card-holding children are over the age of 18. This program is promising certain classes of immigrants that they won’t be deported for a three-year span of time. The program will also issue work permits that are valid for the same amount of time, and this status may make someone eligible for a driver’s license. President Obama’s plan will also employ a more expansive use of its parole authority to make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs who invest in job-creating businesses to move to the United States.
1This event was in partnership with the Office of the President, the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership, the School of Education, the School of Social Work, the Unified Student Government Association, the Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy, and the Department of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs
2The wonderful lunch that Ms. Nazario spoke at was hosted by Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education.