Unaccompanied child migrants face extra trauma once inside U.S.

Bahar Mirhosseini – WNN Features

Migrant children in West Texas detention center
Migrant children, most from Honduras, wait together in a U.S. detention center in West Texas that has extreme crowding and questionable conditions. Current chances for them to find asylum inside the U.S. are a challenge, especially if they do not have access to a legal advocate or attorney. Image: Episocopal Diocese of West Texas

(WNN) New York, U.S., AMERICAS: To date the United States Customs and Border Protection has now apprehended over 57.5 thousand unaccompanied children at the southwestern border of the U.S. from October 2013 to August 2014.

These numbers are significantly higher than they were only a few years ago. Although with rising summer temperatures in the predominately desert regions between the U.S. State of Texas and the Mexican States of Chihuahua, Coahulla, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Matamoros, the numbers for migrant children crossing the border have recently been falling. But it is thought that these lowered numbers may only be temporary and will rise again once the heat of summer subsides.

Migration into the U.S. is not merely a clandestine pursuit of the American dream. The U.S. border traverses a 1,951 mile border between Mexico and the United States. The majority of children crossing the U.S. border hail from Latin America; most from a region known as the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Out of these three countries it is Honduras that has the highest number of children who are fleeing their region hoping to live in the U.S.

Global statistical analysis from the United Nations not only shows that the Northern Triangle has high homicide rates, but that Honduras has the highest rate of homicides in the world. As one of the main drug routes from Central America into the developed North American region Honduras is a place where drug cartel violence is a daily occurrence.

The city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras is no exception. It is known as the bloodiest city in the world and one of the most active locations where cocaine is delivered and trafficked throughout the world. But while drug cartels work to terrorize local families, some mothers in the city have learned how to deal the daily dangers.

The safest time to do errands in the city is early in the morning say many of the mothers who live there. That’s when gang members from the drug cartels are still asleep.

“If you don’t leave we’ll kill your family,” say drug cartel gang members who try to embezzle money from local families who live there. It’s not surprising then to see children from this region streaming across the border to the United States in greater numbers, say the experts. Corruption in the region is rampant as impunity is the standard in the city of San Pedro Sula.

In a region where locals do not trust the Honduran government or the police many are trapped between gangs, police, and city officials as they juggle a tightrope of intimidation, especially under threats made against the children of families who are either seen as uncooperative or too poor to pay monthly gang fees charged to residents of the city.

It’s an “urgent humanitarian situation,” said U.S. President Barack Obama during an important press meeting June 2, 2014. By June 30 the White House had requested additional resources to quickly address the crisis on the southwestern U.S. border. 100 lawyers and paralegals are now being hired to represent unaccompanied migrant minors as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) remains under an interim rule to  hire more temporary immigration judges.

But for child advocates the process is not moving fast enough.

“Members of the administration are upset about the slowness of the process for children, and that has everything to do with how immigration courts starved for resources and nothing to do with children seeking due process,” said Crystal Williams, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

“So let’s address the starvation of immigration courts and let’s address the resources that are needed rather than trying to put children on a plane and put them out,” added Williams.

“Over the last year demand for our services has increased dramatically,” said Abigail Trillin, Executive Director of Legal Services for Children, a California legal group which has served unaccompanied children for over ten years.

“We are doing all we can to increase legal resources available for these children by training additional pro bono attorneys to take cases from our office and also to better coordinate with other local legal non-profits to ensure that, as a community, we are serving as many children as possible. However, the number of children needing representation is quite overwhelming and all non-profits are stretched thin,” she continued.

Citing widespread abuse the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in conjunction with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, filed a formal complaint in early June with the Department of Homeland Security.

These agencies, all advocates for children, did so on behalf of  116 unaccompanied immigrant children, ages five to seventeen years old, who experienced abuse and mistreatment while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society of New York and Lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, Kathleen Maloney, represents unaccompanied children in the New York city immigration court. She says that the crisis with children crossing the border didn’t recently start to happen. Those who have been legal advocates for migrants in the U.S. for many years have seen the numbers increasing.

In the summer of 2014 Maloney went to Texas with representatives from non-profit agencies as she met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the process she visited one of the detention facilities holding migrant children.

“We were able to see the children in the holding cells, but we were not able to speak to them,” she said.

“What we saw were that children were separated based on gender and age groups. I couldn’t count exactly how many kids were in each cell, but I did see that a bunch of boys came out of a cell for lunch and I think I counted around 100 children who were kept in one holding cell. They had no beds to sleep in. They were sleeping on the floor and each child was provided with a blanket,” continued Maloney.

When asked about the process for children who are hoping to find asylum in the United States, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Crystal Williams outlined part of what is now a difficult and multi-layered legal process.

“Particularly when you are talking about children, it takes long enough to elicit from them where there is an asylum claim. This process even takes time with adults who have been traumatized, and when you are talking to a child the process of eliciting the building blocks to get to the fear of their return to their home country is a slow process. So there is no justification to artificially speed up the process for children who we have an obligation to protect,” she said.

Trauma for children who have crossed the border region is common, say child advocates. So much so they are not swift in revealing themselves to strangers.

In a separate July 3, 2014 letter to President Obama AILA, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, among many other concerned organizations and agencies, cautioned the U.S. administration against weakening the legal protections for migrants that currently exist.

“Undermining due process and protection under the law is not the right answer, and certainly will not appease the criticisms of those who have been calling for more punitive and aggressive enforcement,” said Williams.

“The cost of pushing vulnerable children back into dangerous or deadly situations is simply too high,” she continued.

Pro and con immigration protest in Murieta, California July 2014
During a heated July 2014 protest with pro and con U.S. immigration supporters in Murrieta, California a Department of Homeland Security bus carrying migrant mothers and children was turned around by a mob that yelled, “Go home!” and “We don’t want you!” to migrants on the bus. Standing in their way is Grammy award winning Mexican music star and song writer Lupillo Rivera, and others, who tried to push through as they received insults from the crowd. Earlier that day Lupillo was spit upon by protesters who want all U.S. immigration to stop. Image: UT San Diego/ Twitter @peggiepeattie

The Legal Aid Society of New York, as well as other New York city service providers, have also written to President Obama advising the White House that legal protections should not be reversed. They are also asking that all unaccompanied children be assigned legal counsel and that they be placed in proceedings before a judge, rather than being swept up in a voluntary return or an expedited removal in the hands of Customs and Border Protection officers.

The current process facing these children depends on the country the children are from, say legal advocates.

If the child is from Mexico or Canada he or she can be sent back to their home country without ever seeing a judge. As it stands now for other children who are detained crossing the border they continue to be immediately arrested by the CBP. Then they are given a notice to appear in court and will eventually be released to a family member or a sponsor, if that is possible.

If they can’t be released they are held in detention until their case can be heard by a judge. It’s uncertain how much of these cases an unaccompanied migrant child, who speaks little English, can understand in the courts, say advocates.

At the end of the case if the child gets legal relief they can stay in the U.S. But if they do not win their case in court they can be deported. In certain cases, the government allows prosecutorial discretion, which gives courtroom prosecutors a ‘wide latitude’ in what direction to take in the prosecution of migrant and immigrant cases.

In cases involving migrant children prosecution decisions can be life-changing.

Prosecutorial discretion can allow a child to stay inside the U.S. after crossing the border. But they most often do so without any legal status. Unfortunately this puts a child at risk for deportation at a later date.

“Now, the children’s immigration court cases are spread out all across the country,” outlines Kathleen Maloney.

“Children are coming in, generally at the Texas border, and then being moved around the country,” she continues.

“If a child has a parent in New York, the venue of the case will be changed and the case will be heard in New York. I think this is a good thing because there are systems already in place around the country to deal with children. For example, in New York we have a juvenile docket and a high number of not for profit lawyers and pro bono lawyers representing the children. If all the children’s cases are all heard in Texas, this will limit the accessibility to free counsel,” Maloney adds.

Legal Services for Children, a legal advocacy organization based in northern California, believes that it is critical that migrant children receive due process and are able tell their stories in what they call, a “safe environment.”

“In our experience it is difficult for children, especially those who have experienced trauma, to open up immediately. They need time to build relationships and trust,” says Legal Services for Children director Abigail Trillin.

“Any weakening of the Law that would cause swift judgments about children’s situations to be made by people untrained in working with traumatized children will create a huge risk of children being returned to very unsafe situations,” she continued.

But how can the immediacy of danger for these migrant children be understood within the legal system?

For Maloney, “Children should be represented by a lawyer because the stakes are so high.”

Traveling through dangerous regions, especially in Central America, to reach the U.S. is a dangerous journey. Corrupt brokers and gang members have now taken over much of the process for those trying to secretly cross the border into the U.S. Higher extortion fees for families, threats of extreme or sexual violence and incidents of death can follow mothers and children, and children traveling alone, during their tenuous travels to reach the United States.

Deportation back to a city like San Pedro Sula in Honduras can be very dangerous. Morgue Director Hector Hernandez in San Pedro Sula knows the dangers. Sharing with the Los Angeles Times that his morgue has taken in 42 dead children since February 2014 he shared that one of the dead children is a recent U.S. child deportee who was returned back home after hoping to gain asylum in the U.S.

“If a child is here to save his life, but he is unable to file the correct application for legal relief, then that child can be returned to a very harmful situation, maybe even death,” Maloney outlines. “You cannot expect a six-year-old child, who does not even understand English, to be able to stand up in court against a trained lawyer representing the government.”

Other due process violations currently happening for children who cross the border region are resulting in children being ‘cut short’ of what many legal experts say are their legal rights. Under shortened and limited interviews some border officials are questioning children in a way that denies their rights.

“When I was there watching, children were being interviewed by a CBP official and I asked how long it takes for them to talk to a child, to process him and to issue the child a notice to appear. I was told these interviews with CBP take one hour,” continues Maloney.

“While at the facility we were visiting in Texas, I was told some of these interviews was done over the telephone, so that children could be processed faster,” she added.

Children who have undergone a traumatic situation definitely would not feel comfortable doing this, outlines Maloney. Talking about their trauma and fear of returning to their home countries over the telephone or a video system is difficult, she shares.

Child advocates know that a child’s fear of being caught along with a migrant’s fear of deportation or arrest can magnify the struggles migrant children have already had to face in their home regions.

“The children need time to build trust in a lawyer and then they are more willing to open up,” Maloney outlines. “If CBP does these interviews, they are not trained in dealing with children or children who have undergone trauma and the children could be returned to these very difficult situations. Additionally, when they are entitled to legal relief, they are supposed to be given a notice to appear in court and it is supposed to say the date and location of where they are to appear.”

Based on her ten years of representing abused and neglected children in court, Kathleen Maloney stresses the vital need for proper legal counsel.

“[E]ach and every one of these children needs a lawyer to sit down with them, to hear their story, and then to determine whether or not their story amounts to legal relief, and if so to start pursuing that in front of an immigration judge.”

She is not alone in her concern for children who arrive in the U.S. and are most often arrested immediately and held in detention centers.


In August 2014 the U.S. Obama administration has opened two new family detention centers to hold hundreds of women and children from Central America who fled to the United States reportedly to escape violence in their home countries. While most of what is now considered 63,000 unaccompanied minors detained at the border since January have been placed with family members as their cases are processed, those caught with their mothers are being held without bond. A 600-bed detention center run by GEO Group in Karnes City, Texas, opened at the beginning of August and is reportedly already full. Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz visits a second detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to report on the poor conditions and lack of due process for migrants, and the lawyers mobilizing to assist them. “Children were not eating. Children were getting very sick,” says attorney Megan Jordi. “Every child I saw looked incredibly emaciated and had a hollow look in their eyes.” This 8:42 August 2014 Youtube video has been produced by Democracy NOW!, a daily independent global news hour with Amy Goodman & Juan González.


For more information on this topic:

The Psychosocial Impact of Detention and Deportation on U.S. Migrant Children and Families,” Inter-American Human Rights Court, August 2013;

Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection webpage;

Global Study on Homicide,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2013 report;

Understanding Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Law,” American Immigration Council, Immigration Policy Center webpage;

DHS: Violence, poverty, is driving children to flee Central America to U.S.,” Pew Research Center webpage.


As a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, WNN – Women News Network’s Iranian-American reporter Bahar Mirhosseini has worked as a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society criminal and immigration practice in New York since 2007. There she has represented indigent clients on misdemeanor and felony charges in numerous criminal pretrial, trial, and post-conviction proceedings, especially for those who have been detained by immigration and customs enforcement. While a student at Cape Town University, she worked with South African Commission on the Status of Women and studied the effects of discrimination.  She is a Haywood Burned Fellow in Civil and Human rights and Millspaugh Catlin International Human Rights Fellow at the Center of Constitutional Rights.  Through her work on the Advisory Board of Equal Justice Works in Washington D.C., and other action-based campaigns,  Mirhosseini has come to know deeply what it takes to improve the world.


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