The Refugee Crisis at Home

Beginning in the summer of 2013, unusually high numbers of children, both on their own and with their mothers, crossed the southern border of the United States. The numbers increased again last fall, with some 21,500 family units apprehended at the U.S. border between October and December 2015 — almost three times as many as the same period the year before. While there has been much debate about the cause of this surge, pervasive violence in the countries of origin is a major factor. Refugees International has reported on the extreme violence and lack of protection that drives many such persons to risk this often dangerous and uncertain journey to the U.S.

Since recently graduating from law school, I have been working with Mid-South Immigration Advocates who represent clients from Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi, many of them unaccompanied minors. One thing is clear in working with these kids: rather than coming to the U.S. to seek a future with greater economic opportunity or merely to be reunited with family members, many of these young children are fleeing for their lives.

Dozens of the cases my office handles are of young children fleeing death threats and violence from gangs. I represented an eight-year-old boy who journeyed by himself from El Salvador after criminals drove his family from their home and threatened them with death. While the journey to the U.S. is a dangerous one in which kids are often abused — or worse — this boy’s mother knew that it was a better option for her son than remaining in his home country. I also represented a mother who finally escaped with her special-needs son from a lifetime of abuse by a violent partner who would not stop hunting her down were she to remain in her country. 

Despite the horrific nature of the danger these children flee, they continue to face an uphill battle in finding protection in the United States. International law requires that a refugee not be returned to the country in which they fear harm; yet rather than carefully screening each child for credible fears, the U.S. government’s response has largely failed to ensure that such protection is given. 

For those children and mothers that make it to the United States, there remains no legal right to an attorney—a fact that makes achieving protection a much slimmer possibility.

While the administration has recently announced several new shelters to house unaccompanied children crossing the border and plans to admit a greater number of refugees from the Central American region in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), many troubling practices continue.

For those children and mothers that make it to the United States, there remains no legal right to an attorney—a fact that makes achieving protection a much slimmer possibility. In the U.S., non-detained unrepresented asylum seekers have only a 13 percent chance of being granted asylum as a refugee, while those with representation have a 74 percent chance

Many mothers crossing with their children have to fight just to be allowed to apply on their own for asylum. My clients echo the many reports of border patrol officers ignoring claims of fear and abuse. Further, despite a recent court ruling rejecting the practice, thousands of mothers and children continue to be detained as a deterrent to other asylum seekers in prison-like facilities, with limited access to health care and legal services. But for zealous advocacy, many of our clients and countless others would not have even been allowed the chance to apply for protection.

The numbers of unaccompanied children and families crossing the border are once again surging—a testament to the unrelenting horror from which they flee.

Perhaps most troubling are the recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that specifically target mothers and children. While those who are targeted have orders of removal made against them by a court, many of these orders are made in absentia—or without the individual present, often due to the failure of the court to send proper notice. Those that do appear in court often do so without an attorney and, thus, without the ability to fully argue their case.

For the lucky ones who are afforded the chance to stay, difficulties remain. Many of my clients continue to cope with severe levels of trauma. The little boy who traveled from El Salvador on his own was terrified during this year’s Fourth of July celebration, convinced the fireworks were gunshots. My client with the special-needs son, speaking no English, struggled to access services such as healthcare and education that her son desperately needed. Few affordable services, such as psychologists, exist to work with such persons and it is difficult to access those that do.

Despite these roadblocks, the numbers of unaccompanied children and families crossing the border are once again surging—a testament to the unrelenting horror from which they flee. The current government response of using deterrence measures and impeding access to legal services cannot continue. The U.S. must honor its commitment to protect the vulnerable and ensure that each individual is afforded a full and fair opportunity to present their case. When little kids are risking their lives and safety crossing entire countries on their own, we must understand the reality of the situation and not deny them protection. We must treat them as what they are—persecuted children seeking refuge.

Steven Denton is a former intern at Refugees International, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, and currently a staff attorney at Mid-South Immigration Advocates.


Top photo: Unaccompanied minors and a family stand next to Honduran border policemen after being detained for the lack of identity documents at a porous border known as La Montanita in the small village of Suyapa, on the border of Honduras with Guatemala, June 20, 2014. REUTERS photo.