Could our government look a child migrant in the eye?
A guest blog from Ron Gutierrez, Clinical Director, Legal Services for Children (USA)
It’s easy to lack compassion when people’s experiences are hidden from your view.
But as someone who works with child migrants every day, I can assure you that it’s difficult not to feel compassion when someone looks you in the eye and tells their story. Whether it’s a boy fleeing the threat of being murdered by a drug cartel, or a girl who was raped at gunpoint; their stories turn an abstract idea of who ‘migrants’ are into a very immediate idea of real children with real names and real lives.
Looking a child in the eye, hearing their story, and knowing that thousands more in their place are being denied the chance at a better life, makes it impossible to simply stand by as the US government makes their situation ever more difficult.
Desperate children are not our enemy
The United States has historically been a place of refuge for immigrants seeking a better life from across the globe. This migration has made us a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society in which everyone theoretically has the rights they need to thrive.
But now, in 2020, we’re living under a government who is putting our welcoming and compassionate society at risk.
Since 2014, an unprecedented number of children traveling unaccompanied from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico have attempted to enter the US to seek refugee from violence, poverty, family abuse, natural disasters, and other hardships in their home countries. While the US has not recognised children fleeing these conditions as refugees, our legal policy has historically provided a minimal level of humanity and hope for them; including the right to due legal process upon arrival. Our government has stopped seeing them as children, and started to see them simply as an enemy to be contained.
During the last two years, this level of basic humanity offered to our children has eroded precipitously under the Trump administration. Alongside a lack of access to due legal process, this erosion has taken the form of negligence and abuse resulting in fatalities at border detention center and immigration policies directly aimed to punish the most vulnerable. While the child separation policy of 2018 was an act of pure cruelty, the new asylum rules, which bar asylum eligibility for those entering the US at the southern border on or after July 16, 2019 without first seeking asylum in another country, are diabolical.
Scare tactics are not working
In spite of these risks, children are still arriving. They are often doing so because they are fleeing desperate situations in their country of origin. With that in mind, we need to ask whether these inhumane policies are really making the difference they intend to make; or whether they are just causing further unnecessary suffering to those who have already suffered enough. Children that, just like children everywhere, are seeking a life in which they do not have to live with the constant threat of danger.
A holistic approach
Two key strands of work are needed in order to improve the situation for these desperate children.
Firstly, we need to urgently ensure that those who arrive at the border are treated as we would like our own children to be treated. Their right to just legal process must be respected, as must their living conditions whilst awaiting any decision. This must not be optional – it is outlined in three international treaties that the United States has signed and ratified: the 1967 Refugee Protocol, which guarantees the human right to seek asylum; the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits deporting asylum-seekers to places where they may face bodily harm; and the Geneva Convention on the protection of conflict-affected civilians, which requires humane treatment for civilian detainees, even in war.
Secondly, solutions are needed from true leaders in the form of addressing home country struggles in Central America and Mexico. Our President’s way of simply bad-mouthing these countries, and telling them that they need to transform themselves, is not enough; and if we choose to ignore the legal agreements that we have signed ourselves, how can we preach to other countries about their need to improve their human rights record and improve living conditions? Whether our government likes it or not, the United States is part of a regional and global ecosystem, and sticking our head in the sand and hoping for the best is not a realistic solution. Not only does it do nothing to stem the flow of children coming to the border, it also condemns those who choose to stay in their home country to a dangerous future.
At a crossroads
We, the American people, need to consider what kind of leadership we want to see and what kind of country we want to be. We can already see that treating child migrants as the enemy is not improving the situation. So, instead, we need to start listening to them.
Legal Services for Children is proud to be starting collaborative projects with our fellow Family members JUCONI (Mexico) and CONACMI (Guatemala). We will be listening to children at all stages of their migration journey to learn more about their experiences. True collaboration like this, based on the foundations of expert knowledge rooted in local realities and contexts, is the only way we can achieve long-lasting improvements for everyone. Only by doing so will we learn more about why children move, so we can start to explore child-informed approaches to help them out of their crises. Hopefully our government will take a similar approach by listening to and learning from our fellow citizens and governments of this great American continent. And if we do, perhaps we can once again proudly claim to be a principled nation, built on compassion.