CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee
By the end of the 2014 fiscal year, about 60,000 migrant children will have crossed the U.S. borders without parents, guardians, or papers. According to a new study published Thursday by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Kids In Need of Defense, the immigration system does little to consider the “best interests of the child” when children are caught, taken into custody, and placed in deportation proceedings. Instead, children are not treated as children, but as “adults in miniature.”
The study, “A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. Immigration System,” found that migrant children, 90 percent of whom come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, often flee to avoid increasing drug cartel violence in their home communities, including escaping “severe intrafamilial abuse, abandonment, exploitation, deep deprivation, forced marriage, or female genital cutting. Others are trafficked to the United States for sexual or labor exploitation.” And once they’re in the United States and caught by immigration agents, migrant children have to defend themselves in immigration court just as adults would. Courts have no obligation to fund lawyers for the kids so they have to find representation through advocacy organizations and pro bono law programs.
The report detailed the story of Amelia from Guatemala who became a trafficking victim at the age of 15. She was forced to work for 14 hours a day, seven days a week for $100 a month. Only after child welfare services intervened was she then turned over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and later granted a T visa. As the report found, however, “she continues to face the effects of the trauma she suffered.” Other children are not as lucky nor may not be as cognizant of why they’re there in the first place. One pro bono lawyer told the Los Angeles Times that children in the courtroom are often “confused and frightened,” like the child who carried his teddy bear for comfort and another who wet his pants when he faced the judge.
Just last year alone, minors accounted for one in 13 people caught by Border Patrol and 17 percent of them were under the age of 13. According to the LA Times, up to 120 unaccompanied children cross the border each day. And a 2012 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 40 percent of unaccompanied children may be eligible for “statuses that exempt them from deportation. Among the most likely possibilities: asylum, because they fear persecution in their home country, or a special immigrant juvenile status for children abused or abandoned by a parent.” Children who are fortunate enough to have representation are nine times more likely to win their cases, but only seven percent of those placed in federal custody between 2007 and 2009 won their cases.
While facing the judge is daunting, that is only one traumatic aspect of the entire experience. Another study found that more than 1,300 children were detained for as long as one year in adult immigration detention centers between 2008 and 2012.
Both the Senate immigration bill approved last year and the House Democrat immigration bill included a provision which would have mandated counsel for unaccompanied children. Congress will likely not budge on either one of those bills.