by Rhonda Miska, Guest Contributor to Catholic Majority
The Central American children coming to the southern border of the United States have created a stir in the media. Much of what is said about these children and their experiences is oversimplified, misleading, or patently false.
During my time as a legal assistant at Americans for Immigrant Justice – an organization which has provided pro bono legal representation to thousands of immigrants since its founding in 1996 – I have heard the testimonies of some of these children, and reviewed the cases of many others.
Here are five of the most commonly repeated myths about Central American children debunked.
MYTH: DACA is the reason children are coming.
FACT: DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) – which deferred deportation and provided temporary work authorization for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children – was announced by President Obama in June 2012, after the beginning of the surge of children crossing the border. Furthermore, the children crossing the border would not be eligible to regularize their immigration status under DACA since they do not meet its requirements, one of which is presence in the U.S. since June 2007. The kids we are seeing are completely unfamiliar with DACA and other immigration-related legislation. A United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees survey of 404 children found that only nine of them cited U.S. law as a factor which influenced their decision to come to this country.
MYTH: These children are coming here to escape poverty.
FACT: The children departing the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) are not primarily motivated by economics, though poverty is certainly a reality in those countries. Most children cite a fear of return to their home countries based on overwhelming violence, much of which is carried out by powerful gangs and narco-trafficking rings. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world and many of the children departing have already been victims or witnesses of violence including murders, extortion, kidnappings, and rape. Over and over, those of us with humanitarian organizations hearing these children’s stories hear that children are primarily motivated to depart because of out-of-control violence. Furthermore, Nicaragua – which neighbors the Northern Triangle countries and is the most impoverished country in the region – has a much lower rate of violence and correspondingly much lower rate of children coming to U.S.
MYTH: These children do not have claims to remain in U.S.
FACT: According to a review of 923 children completed by Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Services, 63% are “likely to be found eligible for relief by a U.S. Immigration Judge.” Similarly, a United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees Report places the number of children eligible for relief at 60%. Children who are survivors of torture, persecution, and gang intimidation may have a credible fear of return to their home countries and be eligible for asylum. Other children who are survivors of extreme forms of human trafficking may be eligible for a T visa. Still others who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). The only way to determine legitimacy of children’s claim to remain in the U.S. is through consultation with an attorney who understands the complexities of immigration law. This is why providing children access to legal counsel is so crucial.
MYTH: Allowing these children to remain in the US will increase gang activity here.
FACT: These kids are risking everything to escape gang violence in their home countries and have a shot at a peaceful life. If they wanted to be involved in gang activity, they would remain in their home countries where gangs aggressively recruit – especially in schools – starting with kindergarteners. Many children screened by us and other advocates have dropped out of school or moved to a different neighborhood or city to escape gang persecution in their home country before resorting to fleeing to the U.S. In the words of a Salvadoran teenage girl who came to our office seeking assistance: “I just want to go to school and not think that the mareros will follow me home or come to my house.”
MYTH: These children should be automatically sent back and do not have a right to a hearing.
FACT: Under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims and Protection Act of 2008 (TVPRA), children from countries other than Canada and Mexico are placed in removal proceedings with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), an office within the U.S. Department of Justice. They have a right to a hearing before a judge to plead their case to remain in the country. A statement by the American Bar Association rightly recognizes that the children should be treated with “dignity, respect, and special concern” given their particular vulnerability as children. Kevin Appleby, the migration policy director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recognizes the risk children run if deported back to their home countries. He compares the denial of due process to “sending a child back into a burning building and locking the door.”
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The children’s reasons for are seeking refuge are compelling. Their experiences in their home countries, during the journey, and in detention centers after they cross the border are disturbing. Their resilience is inspiring. Let us not forget that they are – first and foremost – children, regardless of their country of origin.
In the words of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins: “These are just like your and my children, except that they’re scared and they’re dirty and they’re tired and they’re terrified.”
Impelled both by the legacy of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants as well as the Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger, we owe it to these children to separate fact from fiction.
[Rhonda Miska is currently serving as a partner in mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary as a legal assistant with Americans for Immigrant Justice. She served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Nicaragua, worked in social justice and Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Richmond, and holds a MA from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her writing on immigration, Catholicism, and the intersection between faith and justice has appeared in various print and online publications, and she is a regular blogger on the Young Adult Catholics blog.]