Woltjen. (University of Chicago Law School)

Immigrant children

Maria Woltjen, a children’s rights expert in the Law School, says US policy should prioritize safety.

Since October 2013, more than 52,000 children, most from Central America and unaccompanied by adults, have crossed the Southwest border into the United States, according to US Customs and Border Protection. That’s nearly double last year’s total and ten times the number from 2009. Administration officials have called it “an urgent humanitarian situation.”

Maria Woltjen heads the University of Chicago Law School’s Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights Clinic, a national initiative that provides child advocates for unaccompanied immigrant children detained by the federal government. Recently the US Department of Health and Human Services asked the clinic to launch three new child advocate programs to serve unaccompanied children in New York, Houston, and DC/Virginia/Maryland.

In an interview, edited and adapted below, Woltjen discussed the crisis.

What has caused the recent surge of unaccompanied children?

The reasons for this mass migration are tangled. For many, the treacherous journey to the US-Mexico border is an act of desperation. A March 2014 United Nations report found that the majority of Central American children coming to the States on their own are fleeing dangerous and violent situations in their home countries. The United Nations reports that Honduras is the murder capital of the world, with Guatemala and El Salvador close behind.

Of course, there are other factors—severe poverty, lack of education opportunities, no health care, and not enough to eat. For some, it’s the desire to be reunited with parents who live in this country. According to a recent UN survey, over half of Central American children who had crossed the border alone had one or both parents in the United States.

How do they get to the border region?

They travel any way they can: by bus, by foot, clinging to the sides and tops of trains. A majority of the children are led by smugglers known as coyotes, some of whom charge families up to $10,000 to bring each child to a spot near the border. Then the child walks over to the border, where they give themselves up to the custody of US Customs and Border Protection. These journeys are often grueling, making children vulnerable to abuse and trafficking along the way.

What happens after they give themselves up to custody?

The children reaching the US border will be charged with breaking the law and placed in deportation proceedings. They’re required to go before an immigration judge and face a government attorney in a formal courtroom. Unfortunately, many, if not most, won’t have an attorney to speak on their behalf, or a child advocate at their side. Unlike in our state courts, where children’s cases are handled separately and where there is a standard called “best interests” of the child to govern the proceedings, these children are treated like adults.

Is it true that most of the children are allowed to stay indefinitely?

It’s not true. The children are not automatically granted legal status of any kind. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries must be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being apprehended. The Customs and Border Protection office transfers them to secure facilities around the country. The children do not have permission to remain in the United States. They are required to appear in immigration court and prove their eligibility to remain.

What is the role of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights Clinic?

The center is working with federal agencies and the White House to protect the children’s rights guaranteed in the TVPRA. It provides that the child advocate’s role is to advocate for the best interests of the child. However, there is no statutory 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.

Based on standards adopted in our juvenile courts, a child’s best interests means that a judge, when placing a child, will consider whether the child will be safe, whether the child will be separated from family, whether this is what the child wants. The center also looks to international law, specifically the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires the consideration of best interests in all decisions regarding children.

How should the US government handle the current crisis?

Wherever one stands on the immigration debate, we need to recognize that unaccompanied children are the most vulnerable. We need to make sure that wherever they land—here or back in their home country—they’ll be safe.