Undoubtedly surpassing 70,000 by now as the year comes to an end, three-fourths of unaccompanied children crossing the border (“The Border Crisis”) are from Central America’s Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. See:
Unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are defined by statute – Section 462 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 – as children under the age of 18 who lack lawful immigration status in the U.S. and are without a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. or no parent or legal guardian is available in the U.S. to provide care and physical custody. See:
The huge surge in border crossings of unaccompanied children stems largely to escape rampant violence, drug and human trafficking, gangs and criminal enterprises, extreme poverty, to reunite with family members, and a host of human rights violations.
A closer look at human trafficking reveals a thriving “industry” with huge number of victims and traumatic and often dire consequences to the victims.
Human trafficking “is the process by which one person (the “trafficker”) recruits another person (“the victim”) for the purposes of exploiting that person. The victim is generally controlled and held captive by the trafficker against his/her will.”
Victims are subjected to “sexual exploitation, known as sex trafficking, or forced labor known as labor trafficking. Sexual exploitation could include acts such as forced pornography, mail-order bride selling, or prostitution.”
Sex trafficking in Latin America is a $16 billion a year business. Some statistics:
- 12 year old Central American girls are sold for $100-$200 each
- 50,000 people are trafficked INTO the U.S. annually as slaves. At least one-third of those victims are Latina women and girls.
- Over half of all women in Latin America have suffered some form of violent act. 33% of these women have been victims of sexual exploitation between the ages of 16 and 49.
- Children from Ecuador are commonly trafficked into Venezuela to serve as prostitutes. The victims are usually children who are kidnapped, sold by their parents, or deceived by false employment opportunities. These children are first exploited through prostitution at the average age of 12, but as young as 7 years old.
- Of the 40,000 sexually exploited children in Venezuela, 78% are girls between the ages of 8 and 17.
- Interpol has set the number trafficked out of Colombia each year at 35,000.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people are victims of forced labor. See:
Of these, 5.5 million (26 %) are below 18 years and 4.5 million (22 per cent) are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
Aside from fairly obvious physical consequences (diseases; injuries; malnutrition; etc.), the emotional trauma and lingering emotional consequences are significant (e.g. Trauma & Stressor-Related Disorders including PTSD; Depressive Disorders; Anxiety Disorders; Substance-Related Disorders; acquired Neurocognitive Disorder due to TBI pursuant to abuse/injury; etc.).
Psychologists may intervene along various stages and in several contexts involving assessment and intervention. Briefly, drawing from the Assessment and Intervention Toolkit for Addressing the Needs of Unaccompanied Minors that I have been putting together there are Five Stages.
- The emotional trauma exposed to in the country of origin that prompted the decision to flee. The assessment has to be thorough and detailed. But it does not stop in the here and now and must go back to “ground zero” for the child. What was his or her life like then and what prompted the decision to flee or escape?
- The dangers exposed to on the way to “freedom” and consequential emotional trauma. It is important not to ignore or speed through the journey and ask very detailed questions. Crossing over, albeit brief, may have left a deep emotional impact.
- The process of having been detained and the detention experience itself also may have been brief, yet the trauma incurred by being placed in overcrowded “jail-like” detention facilities may leave enduring emotional scars. These children, already vulnerable and emotionally fragile, face the added burden of not knowing what lies ahead and what is to become of them.
- By the time these children arrive to their destination in the U.S., they remain emotionally fragile and vulnerable. What will they have to face now? They have to adjust to a life in the U.S. taking into consideration cultural, language, and financial barriers and separation from family and reliance on new caretakers. These children also must cope with the emotional trauma brought on by uncertainty: will they be allowed to remain in the U.S.? These worrisome thoughts will weigh heavily as their legal status – especially now in an emotionally charged political climate – is set adrift in a volatile and complicated system.
- The emotional trauma of having to return to country of origin in the event that relief is not granted. How exactly does one prepare a child for removal? How does one inoculate against the emotional trauma the child will incur? What sort of treatment that builds resilience can be offered? What sort of removal plan can be established? What resources might be available? Who can be contacted? How does the provider know the outcome of his or her pre-removal interventions once a child is removed?
- Assessment at all stages has to be defined and must be goal and situation-specific.
- Assessment needs to distinguish screenings, assessments in a particular context to respond to issues/questions raised in that setting, and more detailed comprehensive clinical evaluations and forensic evaluations.
- A screening can take place immediately following arrival to the U.S. and placement in detention center or shelter; and a screening can take place later to address one or more needs/requirements.
- An intervention point can be defined as an assessment done at a particular point in time in a particular setting, geared to address first and foremost situation-specific questions/needs.
- The assessment is critical, as a starting point, and paves the way for services, treatments, interventions, referrals, etc. that will (hopefully) take place as a result, barring constraints (such as time; access to providers; financial; legal; regulations; etc.).
There are several legal remedies available to Undocumented Alien Children. Among them:
A T-Visa gives temporary nonimmigrant status to victims of “severe forms of human trafficking” on the condition that they help law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute crimes related to human trafficking. However, if the victim is under 18 years of age, the law does not require cooperation with police to obtain a T-visa.
- Must have been a victim of a severe form of human trafficking.
- Must be present in the U.S., American Samoa, or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
- Must cooperate with law enforcement unless <18 years old.
- Must show that he or she would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm upon removal.
- Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
This form of relief is available for certain undocumented children.
The following are threshold requirements after which there will be additional requirements:
- The child has been declared dependent on a juvenile court.
- Reunification with one or both parents is precluded because of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar basis.
- The child’s best interest is not served by returning to country of origin.
To qualify for asylum, an applicant must show past persecution or fear of future persecution based on one of the following five enumerated grounds:
- Membership in a particular social group
- Political opinion
The U-Visa is an available remedy for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse in the U.S. and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Thus, the U-Visa offers protection to undocumented crime victims and facilitates the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute any of a number of qualifying criminal activities that violate U.S. criminal law including:
|Abusive Sexual Contact||Incest||Sexual Exploitation|
|Blackmail||Involuntary Servitude||Slave Trader|
|Domestic Violence||Kidnapping Manslaughter||Torture|
|False Imprisonment||Obstruction of Justice||Witness Tampering|
|Genital Female Mutilation||Peonage||Unlawful Criminal Restraint|
|Felonious Assault||Perjury||Other related crimes|
See CRS Report Unaccompanied Alien Children – Legal Issues: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions for more details:
Children are more susceptible to the dangers of the world than adults; and unaccompanied children who face their situation alone are even more vulnerable.
As psychologists, what role do we have in speaking for unaccompanied children, in protecting them, understanding their needs, safeguarding their rights as human beings, empowering them, tending to their mental health needs, and as consultants within a vastly complicated legal system (immigration and criminal when they are victims of crimes or involved in criminal activities)?
Certainly, under one of the three “Ps” of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2013 (Title XII of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013) – Protection – psychologists can play a robust role. And, in another “P”, Prosecution, to the extent that psychological injury is assessed.
Psychologists may play an instrumental role in the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2005 that addresses the care and custody of unaccompanied alien children in the United States.
See Bill Summary & Status, 109th Congress (2005 – 2006), S.119:
Long gone is the invitation, a portion below, that appears on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Here is Emma Lazarus’ full sonnet:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
There must be some middle ground between the message so boldly and prominently conveyed by the Statue of Liberty and the last verse of Martin Niemöller’s famous quote preceded by a series of “I remained silent” and “I did not speak out”:
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
I hope I’m never in a situation in which there is no one left to speak out for me. Far be it for me to be silent and not speak out for these children whose sole “crime” was to have come into the world.