By Anna Alicia Chavez
Unaccompanied migrant children are a growing population within the global phenomenon of large scale migration. Although there are few statistics available on the exact number of this population, a recent study from the Women’s Refugee Commission reports that in 2007, more than 90,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended along the southern border of the United States.1 For most people living in the U.S. it is difficult to fathom the idea of a child at the age of 5, 9, 13, or even 16 traveling across international borders without a familiar adult companion. Many of these children are seeking to reunite with family members. Others whose families live in dire poverty are sent out alone in search of work to help sustain the family back home. Still many other migrant children are victims of domestic violence, gang violence, abusive child labor practices, human trafficking, rape, forced prostitution, or armed conflict in their home countries. They travel long and dangerous distances seeking refuge here in the United States.
Regardless of their reasons for migrating, unaccompanied children are highly vulnerable and in need of specialized support and guidance. While international conventions may prohibit the repatriation of minor migrants and refugees, most of the children who are apprehended in the U.S. are removed by federal authorities and returned to their countries of origin.2 Given the circumstances that compel them to migrate and the inherent vulnerabilities of children, repatriation can and does indeed prove to be detrimental to these children.
The Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) in Austin, Texas, researched what happens to the unaccompanied undocumented children who are apprehended each year and removed from the U.S. The report finds many inconsistencies in the treatment of the children and a prevalent lack of consideration for the child’s well-being while in the custody of the immigration authorities as well as during the removal and repatriation process. Read the report, A Child Alone and Without Papers (accessed on 2/19/10).
There is no uniform process for what happens to unaccompanied children once they are apprehended and in the custody of the U.S. immigration authorities. The children interviewed by the researchers told of the maltreatment they had received at the hands of the immigration authorities. They described horrific experiences of abuse. They were denied medical attention. They were kept in heavily air conditioned cells and made to sleep on the floor without being given a blanket to keep warm. They were hungry and denied food. They were thirsty and denied water. They were teased and laughed at by the border patrols. They were physically abused by the border patrols. They were transported in kennel-like compartments as though they were dogs.
The human rights of unaccompanied children are often violated and their safety is seriously compromised. Due to a lack of protocols for removal and repatriation, these children are at risk of falling into the very dangers they were fleeing from to begin with. Some children may be afforded an attorney; but, in general, unaccompanied children are left to fend for themselves in a foreign legal system in which it is difficult enough for an adult to maneuver much less a child alone, in distress, and unfamiliar with the language. Many of these children are in need of refuge. Without the proper knowledge and skill needed to ask for asylum, the child is at the mercy of the immigration authorities. Without an adult advocate, the burden of proof falls entirely on the child and consequently, few children are granted asylum.
The U.S. legal system does have a child welfare standard that provides for the child’s best interest when making crucial decisions regarding the child’s custodial care; however, this standard is not generally applied to the case of the unaccompanied undocumented child. Furthermore, the current U.S. system disregards international laws governing the safety and human rights protection of migrant children.
Essentially, the tens of thousands of children who migrate to the U.S. alone and undocumented are victims in the ongoing process of globalization. They are the most vulnerable among all the people on the move today; and the gospel mandate calls Christians and all people of good will to welcome them, to treat them with compassion, to protect their human rights, and to safeguard their inherent human dignity. Host nations are called to provide for the children’s physical, social, spiritual, and educational needs.
Minor migrants and refugees are the theme of the most recent message of Pope Benedict XVI for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.3 The pope makes a special appeal for the rights of migrant and refugee children reminding us that the plight of the children “touches an aspect that Christians view with great attention, remembering the warning of Christ who at the Last Judgment will consider as directed to himself everything that has been done or denied ‘to one of the least of these’ (cf. Mt 25:40, 45). And how can one fail to consider migrant and refugee minors as also being among the ‘least’?”
The pope calls for governments and international organizations to give special attention to the rights of minor immigrants and refugees. He reminds host countries that they have an obligation to create policies that protect child immigrants and promote their integration into society. These children should be able to enjoy basic rights such as going to school, having enough to eat, and being able to work legally. In his closing statement the pope expresses his gratitude to parishes and Catholic associations for the good works already being done on behalf of the children.4 He invites Christians everywhere to “become aware of the social and pastoral challenges posed by migrant and refugee minors.”
As we seek to live a faith that does justice for the immigrant in our midst, may the words of Jesus resound in our hearts: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35)!
1. Half Way Home: Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody (accessed on 2/18/2010).
2. For the entire list of the international human rights of children see the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, December 12, 1989, (accessed on 2/18/2010).
3. Message Of His Holiness Benedict XVI For The 96th World Day Of Migrants And Refugees, (accessed on 2/18/10).
4. Catholic Charities agencies in particular have organized to work in conjunction with immigration authorities to provide for the needs of unaccompanied undocumented children. Shelters run by Catholic Charities’ staff provide a safe haven for many children waiting to resolve their cases before the legal system.