The uncontained violence against unaccompanied Central American minor migrants in the U.S.

Asylum-seeking procedures compound existing traumas unaccompanied children face in the U.S.—and have unintended consequences for service providers.

By Stephanie L. Canizales and Samuel De León

As attention remains on unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children on the border and in federal custody, thousands of children are resettling in counties throughout the U.S. Asylum-seeking children arrive in highest numbers to traditional immigrant gateways like Harris County in Texas and Los Angeles County in California, respectively. It is important to consider how life in the U.S. may reinforce trauma from prior exposure to violence by enacting new forms of violence that compound the suffering of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers in the U.S. Recent interviews with legal, health, and education service providers in Harris County, Texas starting in January 2019 elucidate the effects of uncontained violence against unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the U.S. and suggest priorities in addressing its containment.

Honduran boy playing in Catholic Charities Respite Center crossed with his father in McAllen, Texas and separated under zero-tolerance.   Source

Honduran boy playing in Catholic Charities Respite Center crossed with his father in McAllen, Texas and separated under zero-tolerance. Source

Seeking Asylum in Harris County, Texas

In Harris County, service providers recognize the challenge of achieving formal legal, educational, or economic protections when a child’s conditions of migration are silenced through trauma and fear. Matters are made worse when youth are exposed to violence in sponsoring in the U.S., which compounds prior experiences. A Houston-based organization working toward the legal protection of migrant women and girls estimates that 70-75% of their clients experience violence in the U.S. Certainly, this violence can include domestic and sexual violence at the hands of household or community members (see Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez’s Family Secrets for more on this) or gang violence. Equally alarming are the ways in which violence is enacted by formal institutions charged with protecting immigrant families and children and its widespread effects.

As youth move through detention, resettlement shelters, sponsoring households and schools, they also navigate the U.S. immigration system and its bureaucracy. Youth face the outcomes ranging from legal protection to deportation and the various temporary and fragmented statuses in-between. The possibilities of protection for children are narrowing. Indeed, numerous restrictive measures that enact legal violence on youth have been introduced in response to the rise of unaccompanied minor migrants arriving in the U.S., including proposals to mark youth from non-contiguous border countries as immediately removable upon apprehension, redefine the bounds of ‘unaccompanied’ status to exclude children with parents living in the U.S., and allow for the indefinite detention of children, among others. The separation of family units and the deportation of parents without children unwittingly grows the population of unaccompanied minors which federal departments are unprepared to account for, resettle, and reunify with their families. Several months past their July 2018 deadlinethe federal government continues to work toward the identification and reunification of families separated through zero-tolerance. Evidently, attempts to make the immigration system more efficient can intensify youths’ exposure to violence.

For example, since 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services scheduled asylum interviews in the order they were received, a policy known as First In, First Out. An Obama-era tactic known as rocket dockets aimed at fast-tracking backlogged applications through the prioritization of unaccompanied children or families with children in response to the ‘surge,’ which presented a challenge for attorneys assembling evidence necessary for asylum. In 2018, the federal government introduced a new tactic—Last In, First Out—as a counter to Last In, Last Out. Referred to as a “legal black hole,” this new strategy of placing the most recent arrivals at the top of the immigration courts’ priority list significantly reduces the amount of time that attorneys have to prepare cases and makes asylum less attainable. According to attorneys and other service providers in Houston, Last In, First Out places earlier-arrived children in limbo, or liminal legality, for longer periods of time.

12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez from Honduras cries as she testifies before Congress in 2014.   Source

12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez from Honduras cries as she testifies before Congress in 2014. Source

One of the primary effects of fast tracking is the challenge it creates for attorneys and other stakeholders to serve unaccompanied minors as they are unable to build rapport with children. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are forced to relive these experiences as attorneys work to “craft the ‘perfect victim,’” as one family counselor described. In addition, they are asked to constantly repeat their story to multiple adult figures as they construct their “paper lives that appeal to immigration court judges. This is “hard work” for kids, according to a social service advocate, because they are “retraumatized” throughout the process. Another interview participant described court hearings as “a theatre for survivors [because] attorneys and judges want to see kids cry.” The ever-changing policies that govern the fate of children in the U.S. immigration system can induce further violence on immigrant children.

Although we have not yet interviewed children at this stage in our fieldwork, the re-traumatization migrant children experience is evident in conversations with stakeholders who speak of second-hand or vicarious trauma. “Revictimization occurs in all spheres and service providers are not exempt,” an interview participant said. “This work… it’s emotionally draining, especially listening to stories and providing services. It affects you as a person because you wonder, ‘am I doing enough? What am I missing?’” Stakeholders are pressed to learn as much as they can about a child and the conditions of their migration in a short amount of time. Large caseloads desensitize stakeholders to the severity of their cases. Many worry that the structure of asylum application procedures, hearing scheduling policies, and the normalization of violence against children is affecting the health and livelihoods of advocates:

“They work so much even when they are supposed to have days off. They don’t take breaks; they work on weekends. And then you see they talk about cases like they are winning some kind of competition. They talk about rape, human trafficking like they are happy they have a really severe case because they are going to win.”

Case managers and others who deal with the social integration of unaccompanied minors’ in the U.S. agree that children are most injured by legal policies and procedures.

Unaccompanied boy defends himself in court without attorney or caretaker.  Source

Unaccompanied boy defends himself in court without attorney or caretaker. Source

In Harris County, geography has much to do with this. One paralegal reported, “The kids don’t have rights, especially in Texas”—referring to Texas’ position in the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit, which exacerbates the vulnerability of migrant children legal protection. Importantly, two Texas Immigration Courts—Houston and Arlington—host the largest number of backlogged immigration cases (9048 and 7203 cases, respectively) nationwide, which exacerbates time pressures that contribute to trauma-reinforcement. That many agree that Houston is among the most welcoming cities in the state points to a grim future for many unaccompanied minor migrants seeking asylum in the state.

Containing violence against unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers

Violence against children prompts their migration and moves beyond their individual lives to affect others within their communities and networks and has long-term implications on the development, health, and integration of unaccompanied youth.  Research finds that post migration experiences exacerbate previous trauma and induce toxic stress into the lives of individuals and communities. When experienced by children, and at young ages, violence and trauma can cause or contribute to mental health challenges in adulthood. Thus, we suggest that containing violence against unaccompanied minor migrants should be observed as a public health concern.

Houston residents protest expansion of Southwest Keys facilities in city.  Source

Houston residents protest expansion of Southwest Keys facilities in city. Source

There are multiple ways policymakers can address this concern:

  1. Prioritize migrant child and adult health, especially in cases of long-term custody;

  2. Enforce oversight of federal agencies;

  3. Secure legal counsel and timely asylum hearings as access to legal counsel increases chances of protection from 15-73%;

  4. Provide wraparound post-release services to children and sponsoring families, with a focus on health, education, and economic stability of households; and

  5. Establish trauma-informed procedures for those working in the legal, health, education areas of child resettlement.

As the unaccompanied minor migrant population grows inside and outside of federal facilities, violence is rearing its head.  Failing to contain it promises lasting health, social, economic, and political challenges for generations to come.

Stephanie L. Canizales is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. Her book manuscript, Sin Padres Ni Papeles, examines how undocumented and unaccompanied Central American and Mexican youth experience incorporation as they come of age. Her research has been published in Ethnic and Racial Studies and the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Twitter: @stephcanizales

Samuel De León is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science and Sociology at Texas A&M University. His research interests are Latinx migration, immigrant integration, race/ethnicity, and Latinxs and the law.

 Twitter: @samdeleon_