In 2013, Wendy and her sister crossed the border on a bus into the United States hoping to reunify with their mother. When Border Patrol agents stopped them and asked for papers the girls didn’t have, they were taken off the bus and placed in handcuffs. Wendy and her sister spent days, their wrists and ankles shackled, in freezing-cold holding cells commonly called hieleras—iceboxes. They huddled together under their Mylar blankets to try to keep warm.
The way Wendy and her sister were treated is the result of a system designed to punish migrant children and deter them from seeking lawful protections in this country, and in the process dehumanize and traumatize them.
I represented Wendy and her sister in their fight against deportation as a staff attorney for the children’s program at RAICES, which provides free legal services to children applying for immigration relief. For nearly a decade, I’ve worked as a lawyer representing children in their deportation proceedings, fighting for them to remain in the United States with their loved ones.
I’ve seen firsthand how US policy has failed children when it comes to migration. This country has made immigration a “security” issue rather than a “humanitarian” issue, painting child migrants as violent threats rather than vulnerable youth and perpetuating a vicious cycle of detaining, abusing, and deporting them. What does it say about a country that restricts water for children in detention, and puts young girls in handcuffs in the name of border security? Why do we need protection from children like Wendy and her sister? What are we afraid of?
When people approach me about my work, they often ask: Why do these children come? While there are complex answers that get into “push and pull factors,” the simple truth is they come because they want what all children want: safety, family, and the chance for a better life.
Child migration is nothing new. My own grandmother, Angelita, was 16 when she first crossed into the United States. She and her family moved to Texas when her father abandoned them, and she began working at a young age to help support her family. Angelita and her brothers would be rounded up while working and deported to Mexico. Once, Angelita was separated from her brother and she ended up alone and stranded on the Mexican side of the border. When Angelita was separated from her family, there was no official policy instructing Border Patrol agents to separate children from parents, nor was there widespread news coverage decrying such separations. Despite these hardships, she was eventually able to immigrate to the United States legally and become a citizen.
Wendy and Angelita are generations apart, but their stories echo each other. Both of these young women were victims of family separation, before there was a name for it. Neither had nefarious plans to exploit the US immigration system. They were children—children who had faced challenges and struggles that no child should have to endure. Little has improved since, and, as clearly evidenced by the images of overcrowded cells and children telling stories of being denied access to a clean bathroom or shower, in many ways the system has become much worse.
Instead of trying to solve a global phenomenon with border walls and overcrowded facilities, the structure we build and policies we put into place should be child-centered and human-oriented. We should start seeing migrant children as children, not as numbers or a crisis. Instead of subjecting them to deportation proceedings, we should be finding ways to support their successful, legal resettlement into the United States. If we were to support and prioritize the safety of each child, if we provided trauma-informed services that focused on children’s resilience and potential to succeed, then perhaps we could break down the cycles of poverty and abuse that led them to make the dangerous journey in the first place.
Angelita died a US citizen, and her granddaughter became a lawyer who fights for children’s rights. Wendy is a mother now and has recently applied to be a US citizen. When asked what she would do if she ever found any child in a situation like the one she was in, or the one my grandmother was in more than half a century before her, Wendy answered that she would “look after them and keep them safe.” And isn’t that the answer that any US citizen would give? Isn’t that the way we as Americans believe we should treat all children, no matter where they were born?