Fifteen-year-old Diego arrived in the United States in March, after a two-and-a-half month long journey from Peru. He fled an abusive father and a neighborhood ravaged by gang violence. Six years ago, Tanya Meza left her two daughters with her grandparents in Nicaragua, but last June the girls followed her to New York City. Like Diego, the eight and nine-year-old girls traveled alone. But now that they’re here, the kids are unsure if they will be allowed to stay.
As NBC News reports, the Obama administration estimates that by the end of September the government may apprehend up to 90,000 unaccompanied minors who have left their countries of origin and resettled in the United States. The big question facing the administration and, of course, the immigrants themselves is: should these kids be sent back home, even if those homes are not safe?
By and large, the answer to that question is no. The administration concedes that only about 2,000 child migrants actually are deported each year.
Immigration advocates don’t see this as a problem. Eve Stotland, who works for The Door, a New York based non-profit focused on empowering youth, told NBC: “We’re talking about desperate children. We’ve seen a lot of young people who’ve suffered horrific domestic violence. If we send them back, they’ll probably try to come again… because it’s a matter of survival.”
Stotland estimates that in about 80-90% of cases, The Door’s legal services team win Special Immigrant Juvenile visas — a visa designed to protect child victims of human trafficking, especially those who have been “abused, abandoned, or neglected.” Other lawyers featured in the report, the majority of whom do their work on a volunteer basis, expressed optimism as well. At the immigration court in New York City, even the judge seemed to be on the side of the kids. He told almost every defendant he saw to find a lawyer and return to court in February, essentially putting the deportation process on hold for the next seven months.
Not everyone is happy with this situation. The Center for Immigration Studies, for instance, which seeks to reduce the amount of immigrants settling in the U.S., claims that the juveniles are exploiting the law in order to gain permanent residence here. In an analysis that specifically looked at immigrants from Central America, the Center found the number of minors deported significantly dropped between 2008 and 2013.
I agree with the view expressed by some of the lawyers interviewed that if the parents allowed their children to make the journey to the United States alone, or if the child felt compelled to make the trip of their own accord, then something must be horribly wrong. A child would not up and leave their family, home, and friends for an insignificant reason. These are kids facing sexual abuse, domestic violence, threats of gang warfare, and living in countries that do not provide them adequate support and safety nets. Their human rights are being violated, which means these kids are refugees seeking asylum in our country. We have a moral responsibility to help them find safe harbor. On top of that, these strong youths will surely make strong additions to the fabric of American society. It is in everyone’s interest, I think, to enable them to stay.
Despite the threat of deportation, life goes on for the immigrant minors as it does for most other kids in America. Diego plans on starting 10th grade in September, and dreams of one day becoming a chemical engineer. One who lives in the United States, of course.