Known as the “northern triangle,” the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are currently facing unprecedented levels of poverty, gang violence, drug trafficking and homicide rates. With a poor education system, lack of infrastructure, and corrupt law enforcement, the northern triangle is not an easy place to live, especially for women and children. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), women are targeted in the Northern Triangle and Mexico with significant amounts of violence, including rape, assault, extortion, and threats by armed criminal groups. Living in these unbearable conditions, Central American parents are often left with no other choice than to send their children to the U.S. southern border to seek protection and economic opportunity. 

With more than 50,000 reported unaccompanied children at the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border in Fiscal Year 2018, high traffic at the border has placed significant focus on the process of the United States immigration system. In the hopes of preventing mass migration, the U.S. has implemented stricter border policies and family separation at the border. This tactic not only decreased migration rates, but heightened the danger of crossing the border. In fact, In 2018 alone, the northern triangle accounted for 38,000 unaccompanied children migrating to the U.S. The migration process for unaccompanied minors is especially dangerous, as many fall victim to exploitation, abuse, or trafficking on their way through Central America and Mexico. 

When they reach the border, children are detained by Customs and Border Protection and are screened to measure their fear of persecution or level of danger in their home country. After their arduous and often psychologically damaging journey to seek refuge, many children cannot justify their means of migration and are immediately sent back through a process called “voluntary return”. In most cases, a child’s journey home is even more life threatening. While the exact process of return is unclear, returned migrants struggle to reintegrate into society and are targeted by gangs. If they are not sent back immediately, they then await the standard removal proceedings in immigration court. Many of these children are unable to afford legal representation and are often forced to represent themselves. Those who pass the routine screening are transferred within 72 hours to the facilities of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). 

[map of detention facilities in the U.S.]

For many of these children, their suffering does not end there. These facilities do not meet the basic standards of care for a child. The detaining of children in this stage of the migratory process contributes to negative mental and physical health effects that can stay with them for the rest of their lives. Advocacy organizations report alarming findings after conducting interviews with detainees. Inhumane conditions such as sleeping on cement floors, overcrowding, exposure to extreme temperatures, lack of toilets or bathing facilities, unsafe food, and lack of access to legal counsel has been the norm for many migrant children. Due to an unorganized registry system, their stay is often much longer than 72 hours, with most never knowing when they will be let out.

The remaining step in the migration process for unaccompanied children is integrating them into society. During their stay at the detention facilities, ORR is responsible for pairing a child with a sponsor, preferably a relative. 
Although the process of migration is officially over, the devastating psychological damage will forever remain. The internationally known legal framework for child protection laws, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, is ratified by every country in the world except for the United States. This legal framework calls for freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 37), the provision of special protection to children seeking asylum (Article 22), humane and appropriate treatment of children in detention (Article 37), and guidelines regarding maintaining family unity (Article 9). It is time to call to action an immigration policy reform that implements the use of the convention on the Rights of the Child. Unaccompanied migrants have the right to be treated with the same dignity and care as every other human being in the United States. Supporting the wellbeing of the most vulnerable children is not only ethical, but critical to international human rights and equality.

Written by [Refugees Welcome!] intern, Olivia Scartelli.
Olivia has been with [RW!] since September 2019 as the Executive Director’s intern.She studies International Politics, Spanish, and French at the University of Pennsylvania.

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