The Young Center is tackling this problem on multiple levels: serving as Child Advocate for individual children (link to Child Advocate Program), educating Immigration Judges and enforcement officials about the best interests of the children appearing before them, and advocating at the national level—with Congress and federal agencies—for changes in policy and law (link to Policy Advocacy).
The Young Center is a human rights organization that advocates for the rights and best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children. These are children who travel to the United States without their parents from all corners of the world: Central America, Mexico, China, India, Romania, and Sierra Leone, just to name a few. They travel alone, via smugglers (coyotes), or under the control of traffickers. They make difficult, often dangerous journeys to escape violence, abuse and desperate poverty.
These children – many of whom are younger than 13, some as young as 4 and 5 years old -- are taken into immigration custody and then transferred to secure facilities around the country.
Each child will be charged with breaking the law and placed in deportation proceedings. They’ll be required to go before an immigration judge, to face a government attorney in a formal courtroom. But here’s the thing: many if not most won’t have an attorney to speak on their behalf. They will be treated like adults, unlike in our state courts where children’s cases are handled separately and where there is a standard called best interests of the child. There’s not a precise definition for best interests, but in our juvenile courts it means a judge, when placing a child, will consider whether the child will be safe, whether the child will be separated from family against their wishes, whether this is what the child wants. There is no best interests standard in immigration law, no requirement that judges consider what's best for the child before them even though the decisions can carry life and death consequences.
Consider the story of Eliseo. He arrived from Honduras at the age of 12, and was caught immediately after crossing the border into south Texas, taken into custody, and placed in a detention facility in Houston. It was clear to the people working at the facility that Eliseo had been through a lot. He was terrified to be sent back, but he wouldn’t talk about his life.
In the absence of any kind of best interests standard in immigration law the Young Center tries to make sure that these children, all of whom face deportation, have their best interests attended to by immigration judges and enforcement officials. The U.S. has a long tradition of offering refuge for those who fear for their safety, for those who because of their status face serious danger, but there’s a gap in our law when it comes to children.
The reasons children flee their countries are tangled. First and foremost, unrelenting violence that is going unchecked. The United Nations reports that Honduras is the murder capital of the world, with Guatemala and El Salvador close behind. Severe poverty, no education, no health care, not enough to eat. For many children, it's a desire to be reunited with parents, where they will be safe. We assign advocates to the most vulnerable of these children, but given our size we can only handle a few hundred cases a year.
When we got wind of Eliseo's case, we assigned him a child advocate, in this case a Texas native who speaks fluent Spanish. His job was to learn Eliseo’s story and advocate for his best interests. The advocate would visit Eliseo, spend time with him, play cards, and listen. Over time, Eliseo began to talk about his life. It turned out he was orphaned at the age of 7. There were no relatives to go to, no family friends to take him in. He ended up on the streets, begging for food. When he was 11, the gangs started stalking him, trying to get him to join. And so Eliseo fled north, hoping to reach safety. Armed with this information, the advocate made the case that it was not in Eliseo’s best interests to be sent back, and that Eliseo should be eligible for protection.
To be clear, it's not always in a child's best interests to remain in the U.S. Rafael, an 8-year-old Salvadoran boy, was sent to the U.S. by his mother to “surprise” his father, who lived here with a girlfriend who it turns out had an extensive criminal history. After months in custody, he said he wanted to go back, but everyone worried for the boy’s safety. What mother would send her son to surprise her estranged husband?
Rafael's advocate arranged for a teacher in El Salvador to visit the mother’s home. The teacher learned that Rafael’s father had threatened his wife with violence if she did not send their son. The teacher found a wall covered with mementos—Rafael’s report cards, photographs, artwork. The advocate recommended that Rafael return to El Salvador where he clearly had a loving parent and where he'd be safe.
Over a hundred years ago, under the leadership of Jane Addams, we saw fit to develop a court system devoted solely to children. Wherever you stand on the immigration debate, we need to recognize that unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable of populations. It’s time to create an immigration system that treats children as children, to enact a best interests standard, to provide legal representation, to ensure that each child has an advocate at their side. As a friend once observed, they’re the dust of the earth. We need to make sure that wherever they land – whether it’s here or back in their home country -- they’ll be safe. For we have to remind ourselves, they are, indeed,</br> just children.