Unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States to escape persecution often meet a harsh, hostile reception, slipping through the cracks of a system designed for adults that compounds their trauma, a Harvard University study said Tuesday.
About 8,000 children sought sanctuary in the United States alone — arriving with no family or adult guardian — in 2003, the most recent year studied. Many had no legal counsel and were vulnerable to exploitation, according to a report on the findings.
The 218-page report said the children faced risks that included military recruitment, sexual violence, exploitative work and physical abuse.
Children ‘treated worse than adults’
The two-year study of U.S. immigration laws and agencies said courtrooms often treat unaccompanied child migrants like adults or simply assume they arrived with family.
“There is a void in the immigration law because the law was based on a faulty assumption,” Jacqueline Bhabha, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and co-author of the report, told Reuters. “A lot of children are not attached when they arrive.”
“Far from attracting a compassionate response, children frequently attract the opposite — a punitive, harsh, even vindictive attitude. Children often ... are treated worse than adults, not better.”
She said some children arrive with smugglers; others with siblings or someone from their village. “Our laws do not reflect the reality,” she said.
Most fled Central and South America to escape gangs and religious or political persecution. About 30 percent were from Honduras, 26 percent from El Salvador, 20 percent from Guatemala, 10 percent from Mexico, 3 percent from Brazil and 2 percent from Ecuador, the study said. Another 2 percent were from China.
Study spans three nations
The report was part of an international research project in the United States, Britain and Australia whose findings will be published his year with an analysis on all the three nations.
Work began work in 2004 with data collected from 14 U.S. government agencies dealing with unaccompanied and separated child asylum-seekers. About 70 government and non-government workers were interviewed, along with dozens of children.
One Salvadoran child, identified as Jose, said he felt as if he were being treated as a bank robber by U.S. agents when he arrived in Arizona after crossing the Mexican border.
“They didn’t believe me when I said that I was a minor. They said that I was lying. After I was questioned, I was put into a truck and taken back to the border. No one asked if I was afraid to return to Mexico. The trucks just unloaded us (on the Mexico side) and drove off,” he said in the report.
U.S. immigration officials were not available to comment on Juan’s case or on the Harvard study.
Failure to take children seriously
Bhabha said cases like Juan’s highlight one concern: that immigration authorities often fail to take children as seriously as adults who seek sanctuary.
“Often they assume children are not political, children are innocent, are seen as benign, that children could not be targeted or be at risk,” she said. “There are many decisions that reflect that approach, that say ’sure you are on your own, but why don’t you just go back.’”
The report urges U.S. authorities to recognize legitimate claims by child asylum-seekers and conduct more thorough investigations so that those whose claims are not legitimate are sent home to avoid an “open door” immigration policy.