U.S. Fails to Consider “Best Interests” of Child Migrants

By Eric Hershberg*

Child sitting down on a grass field

The lack of a “best interests” standard in the U.S. Government’s handling of child migrants subjects the children to enduring harm and skews their chances of fair adjudication of their immigration cases. Its absence is aggravated by recent U.S. policies under which a majority of children and families are unable to present protection claims which they are legally entitled to make.

  • The best interests principle is nearly universally accepted. It is enshrined in a vast body of domestic law, such as when determining the home in which to place a child, and in various international human rights instruments. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has the force of law in the 196 countries that have ratified it, states that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United States is the sole country not to ratify the CRC, but – as a signatory – it pledged not to act in a manner that undermines the best interests principle. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Government has, on the whole, allowed practices incorporating best interests principles to gain considerable momentum – until the Administration of President Donald Trump brought such efforts to an abrupt halt. Soon after taking office in 2017, the Administration began stripping away the limited safeguards that leaders of both political parties had, albeit sometimes reluctantly, allowed to emerge over the previous two decades.

  • Trump Administration policies have aimed to deter child and family migrants by forcing them either to suffer confinement in increasingly inhumane conditions in detention facilities or await their case outcomes in Mexico. The Administration has steadily sought to erode the baseline protections in the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which set standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors. It has ignored the Flores provisions that detained children be held only in “safe and sanitary” facilities and within strict time limits. (U.S. courts having stymied the Administration’s efforts to detain children and families indefinitely.) Other policies have limited the number of migrants allowed to enter the United States each day and have forced families to wait out the immigration process in Mexico rather than be released into local communities.
  • For those children and families undeterred by these obstacles, another set of policies has stacked on requirements that effectively zero out their ability to prevail on their claims for protection. The effort began as a narrowing of the substantive criteria for asylum but, over the last year, has become a de facto ban on asylum for Central American children. Though courts again have played a critical role in thwarting many Administration’s efforts, one failed policy is quickly replaced with another even more drastic attempt to shut off all avenues for relief.

While the Trump Administration has taken rejection of the best interests principle to an extreme, no U.S. President has been willing or able to provide strong leadership in guaranteeing the protections to migrant children that U.S. domestic law affords citizens and residents. Widespread perceptions fed by the Administration that migrants are gaming the system make serious discussion of solutions extremely difficult. Policymakers and immigration officials often claim that embracing the best interests principle would create an open border. But respect for children’s best interests can co-exist with a full and fair adjudicative process. It simply guarantees children’s protection, family integrity, and wellbeing during and after a just determination process – even in the face of rejection of their petitions. Rather than updating the U.S. immigration infrastructure and building regional cooperation ensuring children’s well-being, the Trump Administration has further widened the divide between international and domestic child protection laws and U.S. immigration policy.

  • With the underlying drivers of migration remaining strong and likely to spike as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits Central America, the gap between principle and policy will have ever greater consequences for children, whose best interests are increasingly trampled. The repercussions are enormous, according to numerous studies. For children who are already vulnerable, ongoing family separations are traumatic experiences with potentially long-term implications for their physical and mental health. Unsanitary conditions in detention centers were dangerous even before the pandemic. Inadequate access to food, drinking water, clean clothing, and daily necessities – soap, toothbrushes, and towels – has been well documented. Psychologists fear that these children will struggle throughout their lives, be it in the United States or in their native countries.

July 6, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is the Director of CLALS. The report In Children’s Best Interests: Charting a Child-Sensitive Approach to U.S. Immigration Policy (click here for the full report), based on a joint symposium held in February with over 300 participants. The full program and video recordings are here.

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

asylum-blog-graph

Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

As Mexico “Absorbs” Central American Refugees, Record Numbers Reach the U.S.

By Dennis Stinchcomb

uac-family-unit-apprehensions_aula-01

The meeting of world leaders that President Obama convened on Tuesday to rally support for refugee resettlement and inclusion across the globe was good diplomacy but contradicts Washington’s policies even in the Americas.  At a meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, Obama thanked Mexico for “absorbing a great number of refugees from Central America,” yet the data make clear that Mexico is hardly absorbing refugees.  During the first seven months of 2016, as WOLA has reported, Mexico granted asylum to just under 1,150 Central Americans but deported over 80,000 others.  Meanwhile, far greater numbers of Central Americans have reached the U.S., principally women with children (whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection labels “family units”) and minors traveling without a guardian (“unaccompanied children”).  With one month remaining in Fiscal Year 2016, apprehensions of Central American women with children total over 61,000 – up 79 percent from FY15 – and are on pace to surpass the FY14 record.  Likewise, apprehensions of unaccompanied children have already exceeded the FY15 total, and September numbers will likely push the current tally of 42,000 just shy of the FY14 record.

This renewed influx comes despite the Obama administration’s multi-pronged strategy to deter unauthorized migration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

  • U.S. support for Mexico’s Southern Border Program has resulted in unprecedented numbers of both detentions and deportations of Central Americans in Mexico, yet the dramatic increases in arrivals to the U.S. and shifting points of entry – including an upswing in seaborne trafficking – suggests that the exodus from the Northern Triangle continues and that human smugglers have adapted to stepped-up enforcement measures by forging new routes through Mexico.
  • Ongoing raids by U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) authorities, which under the banner of Operation Border Guardian aim to roundup unaccompanied youth who had been ordered deported from the U.S. and have recently turned 18, have not stemmed the tide of new arrivals fleeing untenable circumstances in their countries of origin.
  • Despite a July 2016 expansion of the CAM Program for in-country processing of youth applications for refugee status and for others in Central America asserting that they are at risk of harm, the pool of beneficiaries remains miniscule. Whereas the program had received 9,500 applicants by mid-year, only around 270 had been resettled in the U.S. With a six- to eight-month processing period and room for only 200 applicants at a time at shelters that have been set up in Costa Rica, desperate Central Americans continue to turn to more efficient human smugglers.
  • Public messaging campaigns launched in the region with U.S. government funding, to warn Central Americans of the dangers involved in irregular migration and to dispel misperceptions regarding U.S. immigration policies, also appear fruitless, as outlined in a recent American Immigration Council report).

President Obama’s efforts to galvanize international action in response to forced displacement worldwide highlight his own administration’s shortcomings in addressing refugee flows closer to home.  Expedited hiring of border patrol agents and an increase in the number of beds at contract detention facilities, among other domestic measures, have enabled the administration to process large volumes of Central American migrants while avoiding the appearance of a “border crisis” akin to 2014.  Meanwhile, an emphasis on curtailing outflows from Central America (without regard to the justification of people’s decision to flee), detention (rather than absorption) in Mexico, and deportation in both Mexico and the U.S. has not been matched with analogous investments to address the needs of Central American migrants already in the U.S. who may have legitimate claims for asylum or other forms of protection.  Central American families and unaccompanied children, for example, now account for over one-fourth (26 percent) of the 512,000-case backlog in immigration courts, yet only 53 percent of families and 56 percent of unaccompanied minors have access to attorneys.  In failing to guarantee legal representation for these vulnerable populations the administration is sidestepping the same moral obligation to thoroughly vet and provide safe, inclusive communities for refugees that President Obama challenges other governments to fulfill.  Perhaps funding that is supporting Mexico’s strategy of detention and deportation could be better allocated to programs that ensure proper adjudication of asylum claims – in both Mexico and the U.S. – and to genuinely seek to absorb individuals and families who, through due process, are judged to qualify as refugees.

September 22, 2016

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.