Responding to the plight of migrant children

Missing migrant children

Each year, thousands of migrant children cross the United States/Mexico border without a parent and are placed under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS then places these children with adult sponsors while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court.

During a Senate hearing held in April, Steven Wagner, a top HHS official, admitted that the agency had lost track of 1,475 children who were placed in sponsors’ homes in 2017. This means that HHS had lost track of almost one out of every five migrant children who had received placements during this time. “You are the worst foster parents in the world,” responded Senator Heidi Heitkamp during the hearing. “We are failing. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. And when we fail kids that makes me angry.”

Once they enter the United States, some unaccompanied minors are placed with parents or family members who are already living here, while others are placed with unrelated adult sponsors. An investigation by the Associated Press in 2016 found that more than two dozen children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, forced to work without pay or starved. At the time of the report, many sponsors weren’t required to undergo background checks, nor were government officials likely to visit the sponsors’ homes.

Senator Rob Portman, who chaired the April Senate hearing, first began investigating the plight of these migrant children because of a high-profile case in his home state of Ohio. Eight Guatemalan teenagers were placed with sponsors who were human traffickers. The teenagers were forced to work on egg farms, with traffickers telling them that they or family members would be killed if they refused to work.

Outreach and safety checks by HHS have increased in the past two years, but many advocates say efforts are still inadequate to protect children from abuse and forced labor. 

Why are children unaccompanied?

In 2014, the number of children crossing the border without a parent or guardian surged in the face of gang- and drug-related violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Continued violence in these countries has led to more than 150,000 unaccompanied children arriving at the border.

Seventeen-year-old Cesar fled El Salvador after two gang members beat him when he was leaving school. When he refused to join their gang, they threatened to kill him. Cesar and his younger brother made their way to the United States seeking asylum, but during their journey, they were abandoned by the “coyote” (smuggler) they had hired and nearly died after days in the desert without food and water.

Now in HHS custody, the boys have no right to a government-provided lawyer and have been waiting seven months to see if they can receive pro bono representation in immigration court. Advocates at the North Hills United Methodist Hispanic Mission are trying to help, but Cesar says, “I feel afraid because there are people in court who know the laws, and I don’t.”

Cesar says their plight is difficult because he has had to “walk away from many things, and one of them is your family, and to live in a country where you are practically alone, makes you feel an emptiness.” Still, the knowledge that he’s safe from the violence he fled “is something that encourages us to go on.”

The rights of migrant children

Over the past two decades, U.S. policies governing migrant children fleeing violence and trafficking have gradually shifted. In the 1990s, children as young as four years old were shackled and held in immigration detention facilities. In one of several steps taken during the 2000s, responsibility for immigrant children was shifted to the more child-oriented Department of Health and Human Services, and a special legal status for unaccompanied children was created.

Children can seek asylum, but they must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on particular categories. Since children aren’t provided lawyers in immigration court, their cases are unlikely to be approved unless they have pro bono representation. While many organizations have substantially increased their assistance to unaccompanied immigrant children in recent years, the need for lawyers still outstrips their financial and volunteer resources.

The Reverend Fred Morris, president of the board of the San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center, which is connected with the North Hills United Methodist Hispanic Mission, explains why representation is so important. “Without legal representation, they have better than a 90 percent chance of being deported to their country of origin, and a high probability of being murdered by the gang they were fleeing from in the first place,” he says.

Several United Methodist-sponsored welcome centers operate throughout California as part of the “You Are Not Alone” migrant children’s ministry of the California Pacific Conference. The centers not only connect children with legal assistance, but they also provide services such as trauma therapy and a special summer camp.

Speaking about the plight of immigrant children, United Methodist bishop Minerva Carcaño has said that “human suffering should touch our hearts, and human suffering is all around us, particularly with our immigrant families. . . . I’ve been told if the United States is bold and courageous, we will transform the world in terms of immigrants and immigration. Let us be bold and courageous.”

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