Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Unjust Treatment of Undocumented Child Immigrants in the United States

  Immigration is a hot topic in the U.S., but one element that often gets left out of the discussion is the treatment of undocumented child immigrants. The children who are coming over the border are simply seeking safety and are often just doing what an adult told them to do. They are fleeing from high levels of violence and other horrors many Americans can only imagine. And yet they are being treated like criminals and are being denied basic human rights. 
The first issue with the treatment of undocumented child immigrants is the process of immigration hearings for unaccompanied minors. Children are not entitled to legal representation, which means that the only way a child will have an adult advocate is if he or she can hire one (unlikely) or if a lawyer decides to donate his or her time and work on the case pro bono. There are many organizations and lawyers working to help unaccompanied minors get representation, but there are nowhere near enough volunteers to ensure every child has an advocate. According to the American Bar Association, only about 32% of children are represented by counsel. This leaves the other 68% having to articulate on their own why they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. — against an experienced immigration lawyer. To expect a child, especially one who is likely traumatized and very young, to be fully aware of the U.S. legal process and be able to argue his or her own case is absurd. According to research put together by Syracuse University, unrepresented children have only a 15% success rate in immigration court, compared to a 73% success rate for represented children. Everyone deserves a fair trial regardless of citizenship, and a trial can only be fair if one has representation, especially in a case involving a child. 
  Another issue with the process for dealing with child immigrants is the use of family detention centers, which hold children and their parents. The atmosphere inside centers is like that of a prison, with locked gates and armed guards. Some centers are actually housed inside real prisons and others are run by private for-profit companies that lack sufficient oversight. Various reports have revealed the deplorable states of centers such as inadequate nutrition, a lack of access to health care, mistreatment by guards (including physical abuse, sexual assault, verbal abuse and racial slurs, and the use of solitary confinement as punishment for things like not speaking English), and unsanitary conditions. In short, an environment far from suitable for a child. Research has shown the negative health consequences, long-term psychological effects and developmental delays in children that come as a result of living in detention facilities. These effects worsen the longer a child is in the facility, yet some families are being held in detention centers for as long as a year, or even longer. These negative effects are on top of those already caused from the horrors children have lived through in their native countries and on the dangerous journey coming to the U.S. Another aspect of family detention centers that has negative psychological effects on children is the process for credible fear interviews. Parents are interviewed to see if they have a valid claim, and due to a lack of childcare, their children are often with them at the time. This means that children have to listen to their parent recount stories of extreme violence, rape, murder, etc. — often multiple times, since officials have detainees repeat their accounts to see if the story changes and to judge its validity. If parents choose not to talk about those details in order to shield their children, it can significantly reduce their likelihood of being granted asylum. Living in such conditions is not appropriate for any child, let alone one who has already experienced horrors that many people can only imagine.
  Some may argue that these children do not deserve legal representation or better living conditions since they entered the country without documentation, but all children deserve certain rights, regardless of their citizenship. One document that serves as a good guideline for what constitutes just behavior towards people is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document states that everyone has the right to “security of person” and the right to “seek and to enjoy in other countries’ asylum.” It also states that everyone “is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing” and that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” In specific regards to children, another relevant document is the Convention on the Rights of Child. One of the main points is that the best interest of the child must be the primary concern in making any decision that may affect them. The processes for dealing with undocumented child immigrants is clearly in violation of children’s basic rights. In addition, in July 2015, a federal judge in California ruled that a 1997 settlement stating that minors could not be detained by immigration authorities in secure facilities for more than 72 hrs, and that facilities had to ensure their protection and well-being, applied to both unaccompanied and accompanied children. The ruling makes it clear that policies regarding family detention centers are unconstitutional, yet most facilities remain open, due to states manipulating laws. For example, Texas recently lowered childcare standards so that family detention centers could be licensed as childcare centers, which they are clearly not. Some also argue that family detention centers serve as a deterrent for others looking to cross the border without documentation. However, studies have shown that this is not the case. The majority of undocumented immigrants are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, countries all known for high levels of violence. El Salvador in particular has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Gangs there are basically in power, and threaten to kill a boy’s entire family if he refuses to join. No U.S. policy is going to stop people from looking for a safe haven and wanting the best for their children.
  In order for there to be justice for undocumented child immigrants, the U.S. needs to provide universal representation. The U.S. also needs to close family detention centers, or at the very least improve conditions and not detain children for more than 72 hours. There are various other community-based alternatives that are much cheaper (as low as $12 per person/ per day compared to an average of $164 per person/ per day for detention centers) and that still yield over 95% appearance rates in immigration court. The U.S. government is not the only one who can help, though. UMBC students can contact their local legislators and can donate to advocacy organizations such as Detention Watch Network and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which works to provide legal representation to child immigrants. The KIND office in Baltimore also accepts student volunteers, and no experience is necessary. Bilingual volunteers are especially needed, and can help with translating for a child so that he/she can effectively present his or her case. More information about KIND can be found here:


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