Immigrant Children Deserve Better

By Betsy Zorio, Vice President, U.S. Programs & Advocacy

Systemic violence, gang warfare and deep-rooted poverty and corruption around the globe have forced tens of thousands of children and families to undertake dangerous journeys to the United States in search of protection.

Our nation has long served as a safe harbor for persecuted people, but the past four years have eroded that proud legacy. The government’s sharply anti-immigrant policies have specifically targeted children and families seeking refuge. We have witnessed harmful federal government actions, such as separating children from their families – resulting in 545 children with missing parents – and incarcerating toddler children in order to frighten and deter fellow migrants and asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, these cruel policies persist, even in the midst of COVID-19, putting even more children at risk. The pandemic has been used as a pretext to expand anti-immigrant policies and close the U.S. southern border to children and families fleeing violence. Thousands of children have been expelled from our country without due process or regard for their health and safety. Shamefully, the U.S. immigration system now delivers punishment, rather than protection. Immigrant children – the most vulnerable of all – have suffered most.

We believe the U.S. immigration system should recognize immigrant children first and foremost as children. Children are different from adults, and should be protected by policies and procedures that take their unique needs into account.

Looking ahead to the next four years, there are five recommendations our nation should consider to ensure immigrant children are treated humanely.

  • First, a White House coordinator on immigrant children should be appointed to demonstrate our country’s commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of immigrant children. In the same spirit, the Inter-Agency Working Group on Unaccompanied Children should be re-established to coordinate child-friendly standards across relevant agencies.
  • Second, the President should issue an Executive Order mandating that government officials consider the best interest of children in all immigration policy decisions and support legislation to codify that mandate through federal law.
  • Third, U.S. financial assistance to Central American countries should be restored in addition to promoting targeted aid programs in Northern Triangle countries of origin – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – to address the root causes of unsafe migration. The U.S. must collaborate with transit countries to ensure humanitarian protection and support are provided to children on the move.
  • Fourth, children should not be detained in prison-like confinement. Instead, we should promote the use of effective, compassionate alternatives to detention that preserve family unity and avoid traumatizing young children.
  • Lastly, family separation must stop immediately and significant efforts must be made to reunite every single separated child with their parents. We cannot let hundreds of children live the rest of their lives without their parents because our government did not implement a system capable of reuniting them.

Children – no matter where they are from – deserve to be safe. A new year offers our nation the opportunity to rebuild a stronger, child-centric asylum and immigration system, and to correct past wrongs. Such actions will create a stronger, kinder America for generations to come.

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