As a trained legal professional, I know how terrifying it can be to appear in front of a judge to argue a case. You have to be prepared for any eventuality and be quick and articulate on your feet. Under the best of circumstances it can be difficult and nerves can get the better of you. Now imagine a young child, who has experienced a harrowing journey to reach the United States, having to stand up in front of an immigration judge to argue why he or she should be allowed to stay. The child may or may not speak English, let alone understand complicated legal jargon. He or she is has likely been separated from his or her family for months or even years and may be confused and scared during the course of the legal proceedings, as the trajectory of the next several years of his or her life is decided within a few, short minutes. We should not be putting unaccompanied children entering the United States through this bureaucratic trauma.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recently issued a report entitled Children on the Run that delves into the data of children coming into the United States alone, and looks at what the motivations of these children are in fleeing their home countries. The findings are shocking. In just the past three years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied children coming to the United States from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The numbers of unaccompanied children coming from the latter three countries is especially startling. In FY 2011 4,059 unaccompanied children came into the United States from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala combined. By FY 2013, that number jumped to 21,537. From Mexico, 13,000 unaccompanied children entered in FY 2011. In FY 2013, the number had reached 18,754. The projected number for FY 2014 of unaccompanied children entering the United States from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is 60,000.

The data provided by the UNHCR begs the question of why unaccompanied children are leaving their home countries in such unprecedented numbers. The main reasons cited by interviewed children were violence in their homes and exploitation. In Mexico, children reported the criminal industry of smuggling people into the United States aggressively recruits children for their cause. Children also reported abuse by caretakers, sexual violence, deprivation, regularly witnessing atrocities in society and hope for reunification with their families as reasons of coming to the United States. Many embark on a dangerous and traumatic journey to the United States only to face significant legal obstacles and the risk of deportation once they arrive.

The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) in conjunction with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) identified some of the legal hurdles faced by unaccompanied children in their report A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. Immigration System. Children in immigration courts are not given the same rights and privileges as children living in the United States and uniform standards addressing unaccompanied children are not in place. Specifically, children appearing in deportation proceedings have no right to appointed counsel or a guardian ad litem and are given the status of “adults in miniature.” Not having counsel creates serious questions of whether these children are fairly represented. Immigration visas fall into several categories and children may not be aware which ones they can apply for and how to bolster their cases to comply with the visa requirements and prevent removal from the United States. In addition, limited English proficiency further hinders the abilities of children to explain their circumstances and judges cannot weigh all the relevant factors in making his or her determinations. Finally, immigration courts do not have to use the “best interest of the child” standard, which is applied throughout domestic courts in the United States in proceedings involving children. Without the use of this standard, children face a very real risk of harm in being sent back to their home countries, being held in detention centers detrimental to their development, and being placed with families or institutions where their needs will not be met.

The obstacles faced by children in the immigration process can be reformed to ensure better outcomes for these migrants. Both reports have recommendations that would not be overly burdensome to implement and would have a huge effect on the lives of these children. The following are some examples of measures that can be adopted:

  • Children appearing in legal proceedings should be appointed counsel, preferably one that speaks the child’s native language
  • Children should not be placed in detention, and a more comprehensive system should be built for family reunification, psychological services, education and employment training
  • The “best interest of the child” standard should be adopted by immigration courts
  • Better screening tools should be created to track child migrants
  • More training should be given to immigration officials and judges who deal with this population so that uniform methods are applied and proceedings should be non-adversarial
  • Bilateral/Multi-lateral agreements with home countries to ensure safety of returned children

Children, no matter where they are born, should never have to experience exploitation, violence, or abuse. With the expected influx of unaccompanied children entering the United States, now is the time to reform our laws and policies to ensure the safety and well being of these vulnerable youth. Federal immigration reform is one possible avenue for addressing the needs of unaccompanied children as highlighted in a recent First Focus report, but with the prospects of a comprehensive bill in the coming year still uncertain, it is essential that policy makers act now. In the interest of justice and human rights, it is crucial that unaccompanied children are not put through more traumas, and instead are provided with services and supports to ensure the best outcome for them.