Symposium emphasizes plight of unaccompanied child migrants

Whole-Room-400On Monday, February 23, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an emergency stay, keeping alive President Obama’s immigration reform despite efforts by a U.S. District Judge in Texas to block it. This is just the most recent development in an ongoing, partisan battle over immigration reform spurred in part by last year’s exponential growth in the immigration of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

The ruling was announced as the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke hosted a symposium on the issue of unaccompanied child migration, bringing together several key scholars and advocates as well as attracting a capacity crowd of students, activists, case workers, and researchers. The symposium, organized by Humanities Writ Large Fellow Frank Graziano, focused mainly on immigration into the United States from Central America and the Global South. In countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, violence at the hands of competing drug cartels has reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, there are few resources to fund and support child protective services in these nations, and most minors who enter the U.S. illegally are looking for escape through work opportunities or to reunite with family members.

Among the issues brought to light by the symposium’s speakers and discussants was the policy of mandatory detention, through which unaccompanied children are treated as adults and kept in privately operated detention facilities, sometimes with no end date. There is no clear path for legal residency, even though many detainees are long-term residents of the U.S. many unaccompanied children survive predatory abuse including rape and assault during their entry into America, only to be deported back to countries who lack the resources to address their needs. Even for children who are able to be reunited with their families, many have not seen their parents in several years, and the adjustment can produce tensions that end in homelessness for the youth. The demand for illegal drugs in America that fuels the chaos that forces Central Americans from their home countries also draws in migrant youth with limited opportunities. If they get caught in gang activity and are convicted of criminal charges, they are automatically deported.

panelists-smilesSuggestions for ways to improve the system included better oversight of privately managed detention facilities; providing more avenues for legal residency, including broadening who classifies as a refugee; increasing methods for searching out family members for unaccompanied minors; and providing better resources for their care. It was also suggested that advances neuroscience, which have illustrated that the development of the adult brain takes longer than previously thought, should be used to help guide policy, particularly for a category of adolescents who are so vulnerable and often victimized.

Panelists shared a commonly heard argument against increasing resources for illegal child immigrants — that those resources should be used for American children who are in need. But the United States has legal obligations through international treaties to protect immigrants in addition to ethical responsibilities. While the plight of these children and adolescents is often viewed as an “invisible problem,” it was mentioned that this issue has been in the news constantly. One panelist noted that there is a jarring conflict between the American middle and upper class obsession with parenting and childhood and the attitude that these immigrant children are disposable, or at best, a problem to be fixed.

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