Posted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 04, 2009

The immigration system needs to safeguard the children in its custody.

Immigrant children who come here without their parents deserve better treatment.

Each year, tens of thousands of such children cross the border without papers and without their parents.

They are caught up in our immigration system and too often mistreated, denied basic rights and expected to take on responsibilities well beyond their years.

An estimated 43,000 unaccompanied children without documents are removed from the United States annually and returned to their country, according to a recent report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

These children range in age from little kids to teenagers. And they have entered for a variety of reasons. They may be escaping violence and poverty, or they may be looking to reunite with other members of their family.

Some cross the borders with smugglers who have been contracted by their parents. The decision to enter this country is more often than not completely out of the child’s hands.

Yet it is the child who suffers.

Sometimes, the Border Patrol agents ignore requests for medical treatment, fail to provide food or water, or place these kids in icy cold cells, according to the report “A Child Alone and Without Papers.” Sometimes children are not allowed access to attorneys or their consulates. Sometimes they are held too long. When they are sent back, sometimes they are returned to unsafe conditions.

Don’t get me wrong. There are good people in the immigration system who treat these children with care and kindness.

Several years ago, I visited a center in my own community that houses unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America. The place was welcoming and the staff members were dedicated. Attorneys worked with the children. The doors of the dormitory were decorated with hand-drawn pictures. Children were given the opportunity to speak to their parents by phone.

We need policies to ensure that all immigrant children who are here without their parents receive such humane treatment.

Critics will say that we should not pay the price for parents who decide to bring their children here outside of the legal immigration system.

They will say that we should not be responsible if other governments cannot provide for or control their own citizens.

They will argue that we should worry about “our own” and not others.

These arguments ignore one important fact: We have a responsibility, morally and legally, to children within our borders. International law confirms this. And in our collective heart we know that all children deserve protection.

The immigration system needs to safeguard the children in its custody.

Yolanda Chavez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border histories. Her research is on children crossing the border at the turn of the 20th century. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.