Immigration Policy and Children at the Border

June 22, 2018

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of visiting scholars.

On Thursday, the House delayed a vote on a controversial immigration bill that sought to reduce legal immigration and provide billions of dollars in funding for a border wall, among other measures. The decision came on the heels of intense public outcry over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in scores of migrant families being detained and separated after entering the U.S. to request asylum. Though on Wednesday Trump signed an executive order halting the practice of separating these families, over 2,300 children still remain separated from their parents, with many relocated to facilities scattered across the U.S.

At RSF, visiting scholar Katharine Donato (Georgetown University) is researching immigrant incorporation in the U.S., focusing specifically on how federal laws, policies, and practices can better accommodate migrant children. In an interview with the foundation, Donato explained how the ongoing crisis at the border fits into a longer history of child migration to the U.S. and discussed whether policymakers could achieve a compromise on immigration policy at a time of extreme political polarization.

Q. Your ongoing research examines changes in attitudes and policies concerning U.S. immigration. How have these changes affected the way that migrant children are treated at the border? How has responsibility for these children shifted over time?

Donato: First, let me say that there is a long history of child migration to the U.S. While children are not generally represented in most immigration history books, they have migrated with and without their families for centuries. During the period of large-scale immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many child migrants arrived in the U.S. Of those without parents, some were apprenticed in families throughout the country, some were court-ordered into apprenticeships, and others were kidnapped in different countries and sold into child labor and indentured servitude in the U.S. The first people to register at Ellis Island after it opened in 1892 were, in fact, three unaccompanied minors from Ireland: Annie Moore and her two younger brothers. (They have been commemorated with bronze statues both at Ellis Island and in Ireland.) And as a personal note, two of my four grandparents were younger than sixteen when they arrived in New York from Italy in the early twentieth century.

Between the late 1920s and the 1970s, policymakers debated whether and how children orphaned by war and conflict could enter the country. Following World War II, Congress implemented several programs intended to resettle small groups of children displaced by war and conflict. Each program had its own purpose, admission eligibility, administrative structure and guidelines. One of them, Operation Pedro Pan, eventually resettled approximately 14,000 children who were evacuated from Cuba after Castro's takeover. At the end of the Vietnam War, the Indochinese Refugee Program and the Amerasian Immigration Act resettled approximately 30,000 children from Southeast Asia. 

In 1980 Congress passed the Refugee Act, which standardized resettlement services for all persons entering as refugees or as unaccompanied, orphaned or separated children seeking asylum. As a result, the U.S. government now manages all unaccompanied migrant children in need of protection and asylum. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services is the guardian of these children until they reach 18 years of age. Since 2003 ORR has also been mandated to work with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which vets children crossing into the U.S. before transferring them to ORR. 

Over the last two decades, there has been a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant sentiment,  increased enforcement at the border, and a decline in unauthorized migration, which has led to a number of changes in how the U.S. manages both unaccompanied minors and families who enter the US and request asylum. While requesting asylum is a right of anyone who enters the country, how these asylum seekers are managed differs depending on policies and rules enacted by various presidential administrations. The Obama administration’s initial policy, for example, was wide-scale detention of immigrant families. But beginning in 2014 when more children and families came to the US seeking asylum, that policy shifted to less prosecution especially of those who arrived in the US with their children. 

Now, under the “zero-tolerance” policy implemented by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when families enter the U.S. without authorization, all parents are criminally prosecuted and detained, and until last Wednesday, their children were being removed by federal agents. Even if these parents pass a credible fear interview that suggest they qualify for asylum and are then released from detention, they have difficulty finding their children, who were often transported to centers far away from their parents. According to some reports, federal agents who jailed parents did not keep information about where the children was transported to in the parent’s file. And if parents do not pass a credible fear interview, they are deported without knowing where their children are and without being able to speak with them before leaving the country. 

In other words, what we are seeing now—the separation of children from their parents—results from a policy change implemented by the Trump administration. Even in light of Trump’s executive order halting new separations, the families that have been separated may continue to remain apart for long periods of time.

Q. While there has been much media coverage of the families being separated at the border as of late, there are also unaccompanied children who have been detained. What do we know about these children, their families, and their sending countries?

Most unaccompanied children entering the U.S. now are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—countries where homicide rates and other forms of violence are very high. (I wrote a paper that was published in the RSF Journal showing that violence was a significant predictor of children's migration from Mexico to the U.S., net of other factors.) 

Many of these children have relatives in the U.S. and enter requesting to be reunited with those relatives. However, migrant shelters at the border are reporting that it has become harder to contact the relatives that children identify. Furthermore, as a consequence of the ongoing crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, many of these children’s relatives fear they will be asked to show documentation if they become guardians.

One important point to keep in mind is that the numbers of persons entering the U.S. without documentation and requesting asylum—whether they are unaccompanied minors or parents with children—are not huge. There has been a rise in migrants seeking asylum over the last ten years but these numbers do not approach the numbers of unauthorized persons that entered the U.S. each year in the 1990s. (At that time, estimates suggested 200,000­–300,000 persons crossing without documents each year.) In addition, since 1986 and passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has received a huge influx of funds which have lead to many more officers as well as technology and equipment at the border, and internal enforcement. This is to say that the problem is not a lack of resources, but rather, the fact that enforcement policies and practices are not flexible and accommodating enough to handle different constituencies arriving at the border. This is also what makes the situation politically charged, and subject to political scapegoating by those with partisan and personal interests.

Q. How can we reframe the narrative around migrant children? Given today's extreme political polarization around immigration, to what extent can lawmakers achieve some kind of middle ground on immigration policy?

Reframing the situation requires us to remember first and foremost that we are talking about children. In addition to recognizing the right of migrants to claim asylum, we usually recognize that children are particularly vulnerable and have special needs. Over the last week, the American public appears to be waking up and seeing that these are children first, migrants later. More and more are voicing that the separation of families at the border is a humanitarian failure of U.S. policy. With their support, and perhaps as a result of this wake-up call, I am hopeful that our policies and practices will begin to redefine protections for migrant children. 

There is a middle ground on U.S. immigration policy and it can occur around migrant children. As a visiting scholar here at RSF, I am writing about what laws, policies, and practices could be changed to better accommodate children. Changing laws may be a difficult task in such a polarized period of U.S. history, but the policies and practices that presidential administrations adopt can prioritize protection mechanisms for children rather than break them down.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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