Children, Migration and Human Rights: The Case of the Mexican Border Children – Group 1 Human Rights Dossier


This image captures one of the 29 children in an Immigration Court in New York awaiting trial after being caught by border control. This image comes from Daily News that reported upon the 29 children awaiting their trial.

Human Rights Dossier
Group 1: Sarah Johnston, Corey Cruise and Sara Phelps

In the summer of 2014, 68,000 unaccompanied child migrants from Central America, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico Border fleeing violent and impoverished conditions in their home countries and seeking reunification with parents who had migrated years prior. The case prompted attention from media, lawyers, human rights activists, immigration reformers, and politicians nationwide and raised several questions regarding children and human rights.

Several human rights organizations and researchers, such as Human Rights Watch and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of Law, published reports soon after the influx, arguing that human rights violations occur in the children’s home, transit, and destination countries (Donato and Sisk 2015; Musalo, Frydman, and Cernadas 2015). The violations include violence, the threat of violence, deprivation of fundamental human rights (such as the right to develop), and extreme poverty in home countries, hunger, theft, rape and murder in the transit country of Mexico, and institutional policies that fail to acknowledge the unique status of children in the U.S. (Musalo, Frydman, and Cernadas 2015, iii-iv, 387-388).

If the children make it to the U.S., the conditions they face do not meet International Human Rights standards. In addition to holding cells that do not provide adequate nutrition, bedding, and medical care, the treatment of detained unaccompanied child migrants has several institutional policies that violate human rights standards (Musalo, Frydman and Cernadas 2015, xiii). The children face several barriers in gaining citizenship and are not recognized as refugees.

Citing international human rights policies, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (383), the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (392), the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (392), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (394), the researchers argue that the countries involved violate international standards of human rights. In addition, they offer comprehensive recommendations that address the complex nature of child migration, arguing for local, national, regional, and bilateral policy changes. The authors argue that the countries must develop and implement bilateral agreements that use a best-interest, child-focused approach, noting that deportations do not deter re-migration and may even encourage it, due to the debt the children incur from attempting to cross the border (Musalo, Frydman and Cernadas 2015, xiv). These transnational policy suggestions include, “violence prevention, a national development plan, sustainable reintegration [of the children if they are deported] and binding regional accord between countries” (Musalo 2015, xv).

While the reports have been extensive and outline clear institutional and political reform, the Obama administration’s humanitarian policies are vague and questioned by human rights activists (Sorrentino 2015). Additionally, it is unclear whether or not the administration is taking specific action on immigration reform, suspiciously espousing “increased enforcement” that calls for more “efficiency” (U.S. Office of the Press Secretary 2014). More disturbingly, human rights activists claim that the U.S. is supporting Programa Frontera Sur, a new detention program enacted by the Mexican government in July 2014 that has been associated with increased human rights violations in Mexico. A historical contextualization of the issue suggests that the U.S.’s response is an extension of neoliberal and Cold War policies, during which the U.S. was directly and indirectly involved with policies and governments that created the conditions of extreme poverty and violence that have caused the influx in migration (Sorrentino 2015).

The U.S.’s past immigration policy toward unaccompanied child migrants suggests that humanitarian groups can have a major role in influencing dramatic change. In the context of the U.S.’s involvement in Latin America, it is clear that the policies toward the unaccompanied child migrants from Central America are primarily motivated by political interests rather than humanitarian ones. The U.S.’s involvement with policies and governments that created the conditions causing the influx in migration from Central America implies that the U.S. must take national responsibility for the issue by addressing human rights violations in Central America at their core, in addition to making domestic change in immigration policy. Until then, it is probable that the human rights crisis in Central America will continue to escalate, with the faces of children fighting for safe and stable futures haunting the U.S. for years to come.

Full Dossier: Children, Migration, and Human Rights-The Case of the Mexican-Border Children -Group 1

About Sarah Johnston

Undergraduate student at UC Davis pursuing a double major in Political Science and International Relations and a minor in Human Rights. Class of 2016.

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