Street Children - Their Vulnerabilities and Our Responsibilities

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9/22/06 11:19 AM


I. I NTRODUCTION Children throughout the world are placed in harm’s way through the circumstances of their lives, often far from the childhoods available for many in societies that are politically stable and economically prosperous. Our own society is at a crossroads. How do we want to treat the unaccompanied youth who come to our borders – as the children they are, or as objects of interest to homeland security, border patrols, and immigration discourse? Although one might easily respond, that we should treat the youth as children first, our immigration policy continues to objectify children as a group. Furthermore, our immigration policy does not take into account the vulnerability of each individual child, their histories, potential victimization and resultant distrust, their human rights and personal dignity, resilience, cognitive development, or susceptibility to persuasion. There is very little written about the mental health impact of immigration detention on children in the United States. This paper will attempt to draw on what has been written about both adults and children detained abroad to underscore the necessity of incorporating child development and mental health considerations into the immigration debate. In addition, I will advocate against the use of immigration detention of children in favor of foster care and group homes, as well as for the use of guardians ad litem. Here is story of a young man, now 25, from Guatemala who fled his country. Had he been picked up by border control, he would have likely been deported. His mother left him when he was five. He thinks it was because she was pregnant with another child, and was very poor. Guatemalan soldiers threatened his father as they wanted him to serve in the army. He then disappeared. His uncle was brutally murdered and was drowned in front of him. His grandfather was burned in his house alive. He was alone on his own at age ten . . . at the whim of the adults he met along the way who sometimes fed him, and often abused him. For so many years of his young life, he had to fend for him* M.D., M.P.H. Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights at the Boston Medical Center. 263


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[Vol. 15

self. He met a young woman, only later to be found by the rebels who wanted his grandfather’s deed to the land. They raped her, and killed one daughter, but did not see their other infant. She fled. Over some years, he made his way to Mexico, and crossed over into the United States. . . sometimes hidden in a truck with others, afraid. They could hardly breathe, he thought he would die. Undocumented, he arrived in the Northeast. By serendipity, he found his significant other. He suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression. He applied for asylum and demonstrated well- founded fear of persecution. He was granted, and now prays that he can one day be reunited with his other daughter who he left with a family in Guatemala for safe keeping. Now he is learning English, and wants desperately to provide for his family. He prays for people back home, because “they do not have what he has at this time. With a resilient spirit, he wants very much to contribute to American society, his new country. As the immigration system currently operates, if he had been picked up by border control, it is likely that he would have been sent back. He did not have documents when he crossed into the United States. He was told by the smugglers not to say anything if asked questions. He was also afraid to tell his story as he had never told anyone what he had experienced, not even to his significant other. He could not have afforded a lawyer. It is possible he would...
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