Vulnerable and Alone: Children Crossing the Border

Names have been changed in this post for security purposes.

Although Maria is just 13-years-old, she already suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, reports Dr. Carol Kessler, a child psychiatrist and member of the Asylum Network at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Originally from El Salvador, Maria fled to the United States after a gang member attempted to rape her and force her to join his gang. Maria escaped the attempted assault physically unharmed, but then received death threats from gang members after her refusal to join them. They also threatened to kill her grandparents with whom she lived at the time, and Maria felt that the police could not protect her. Dr. Kessler, who documented Maria’s symptoms for her immigration court case, notes that Maria “would rather die than return to El Salvador,” and suffers from nightmares, a sense of helplessness, and acute anxiety.

Maria is one of the thousands of unaccompanied children who have recently fled El Salvador and are seeking humanitarian protection in the United States. Despite the harrowing events that Maria suffered, she is one of the lucky ones. Maria was able to secure pro bono legal counsel and her attorney requested a psychological evaluation through PHR’s Asylum Network. Dr. Kessler conducted a forensic evaluation of Maria, and wrote a medical-legal affidavit documenting the psychological symptoms that Maria suffers as a result of her experience in her home country. This young girl has to tell her story of abuse again and again because – even though she is a child – the burden of proof falls on her to provide evidence of past persecution.

Like Maria, many unaccompanied children entering the United States have suffered traumatic experiences and are fleeing violence in their home countries. They make a treacherous journey during which they often experience further physical and sexual violence. Understandably, it is often difficult for these children to tell a border patrol agent or asylum officer about the horrors they have escaped and the violence they have suffered – especially when these are the same agents and officers who detain the children upon arrival and place them in an overcrowded holding cell. The children are then interviewed by an immigration officer who is generally not trained to work with children.

It is alarming that some policy proposals have called for rolling back protections afforded to unaccompanied children under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) to give border patrol agents the power to immediately render deportation decisions. The TVPRA was passed unanimously because lawmakers recognized the need to protect this vulnerable population. Maria would not have had the opportunity to share her story with Dr. Kessler if she were immediately forced to undergo an interrogation with a border patrol agent. She had difficulty sharing her story with a trained expert in childhood trauma, so we can imagine how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been for Maria to tell her story to the border patrol agent who apprehended her.

Dr. Minal Giri, another member of PHR’s Asylum Network who has examined dozens of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the U.S. border, explains the struggle that children face after being apprehended: "These kids have been severely traumatized and will not be able to divulge their history in one entire session. It takes time for them. These kids often don’t have the cognitive ability to form a narrative, and it won’t necessarily be a linear narrative. Just like adults, they have trauma and injuries that may prevent them from remembering.”

According to a report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 58 percent of unaccompanied children who the agency interviewed were forcibly displaced and suffered harms that indicated the need for international protection. Rolling back legal protections that were put in place to protect children from trafficking, violence, and enslavement is not an appropriate response. Before calling for expedited removal proceedings, the U.S. Government must consider whether it is sending these children back to life-threatening situations.

The children at the U.S. border who are currently attracting so much attention deserve to have their stories heard and receive the help of trained professionals. Their trauma is real, as is the danger they could face upon being summarily deported. Maria’s case should not be an outlier – it should be a model for the humane treatment of children who seek asylum.

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