A Review of Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age

Human Rights, Human Woes

by | Nov 25, 2015

Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age By Jacqueline Bhabha Princeton University Press, 2014

The two boys walked up the road to the top of a levee and then sat down in the gravel and weeds. In the near distance overhead, the Anzalduas Bridge spanned the Rio Grande, connecting Mission, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico.

The boys, no more than 13, turned out to be from Honduras. Earlier that Saturday, in the pre-dawn dark, they had crossed the muddy greenish waters on a raft piloted by smugglers, who deposited them on the banks of the United States and told them to keep walking until they encountered a truck painted white with and green stripes, the markings of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Within minutes, a Border Patrol vehicle came zooming in from the distance on top of the levee, a plume of white dust trailing behind.  A Border Patrol agent told them to climb inside and the truck sped off.

It was mid-June in 2014, the peak of the so-called “surge” of child migrants fleeing Central America and then crossing the border from Mexico into the United States along the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas.  Never before had I witnessed such an astonishing scene, taking place the last day of my weeklong trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to cover the surge for The Arizona Republic. Instead of trying to evade the Border Patrol, as unauthorized migrants have done in the past, these children—traveling alone, or with mothers and other family members—were actually turning themselves in to the Border Patrol in a desperate hope that by doing so they would be given “permisos” to stay in the United States permanently.

The “permisos” of course, turned out to be a lie, marketed  by enterprising smuggling organizations to exploit the growing desperation of children and juveniles eager to flee the grinding poverty and vicious gang violence gripping many areas of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

The flow of Central American children and juveniles to the United States is just one element of the growing phenomenon of child migration explored in Jacqueline Bhabha’s sweeping new book, Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age

Bhabha, the Professor of Practice on Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health and a lawyer, is one of the foremost experts on transnational child migration, refugee protection, and children’s rights and citizenship. 

Spanning multiple continents, her superb book is a comprehensive examination of child migration across the globe and the accompanying human rights implications. 

Divided into three parts, the book first explores the movement of children who cross borders attempting to reunite with parents who migrated earlier in search of work to support their families or parents who had fled war and other calamities. 

“The basic human intuition that family life is crucial for the well-being of children is confirmed by human behavior, by the sacrifices made, the plans developed, the migrations embarked upon to secure reunification when family unity has been interrupted,” Bhabha writes.

The basic right to family life is a “crucial bedrock of a just migration policy,” she later adds.

Even so, through various examples, Bhabha shows how family reunification for deserving migrant children is often delayed or denied altogether by legal obstacles and flawed policies. 

A second part looks at the hidden phenomenon of child trafficking, in which  children are transported, often by smugglers, for the purposes of  exploitation, either for their physical labor or for work in the sex trade.

In this section, Bhabha argues that the common characterization of trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery, which is how I have often heard it presented, is inaccurate. It ignores the fact that it is the migrant children themselves who seek out a relationship with their traffickers believing they both will benefit through an offer of work only to end up being exploited because of their vulnerability. 

“Understanding and engaging with this “voluntary” element in trafficking relationships affecting children is crucial to developing lasting solutions,” Bhabha argues.

The third part of Bhabha’s book explores how children fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in other countries increasingly “encounter hostility and a climate of suspicion despite a broad international consensus supportive of their rights to protection.”

Because of wide media attention, the public is familiar with some facets of child immigrationsuch as the flow of unaccompanied minors from Latin America to the United States and from Africa and the Middle East to the European Union.  

As Bhabha’s book points out, the children are not fleeing for a single reason, but often for multiple reasons at the same time. Some are traveling to join families that have already migrated. Some are fleeing war, civil unrest, natural disaster and persecution. Others are in search of work, education, opportunity and sometimes adventure. Still others are being trafficked or smuggled, when, as Bhabha notes, they are at great risk of exploitation, and abuse.

Bhabha’s book goes beyond some of these more obvious forms of child migration and is most provocative when delving  into myriad human rights issues associated with international adoptions. It had never dawned on me to think of international adoptions as a form of child migration, but of course they are, since so often they involves the movement of children from dysfunctional developing countries to nations in the developed world, usually to families with means in the West.

The book contrasts the differing public attitudes toward international adoptions and children fleeing to other countries on their own. International adoptions tend to be viewed in a favorable light, since the public perceives that these families, often unable to have children of their own, are “saving” children who might otherwise grow up in orphanages lacking opportunities afforded them in their new environments. 

But why then are children who are fleeing often horrendous conditions on their own, who in effect are attempting to “save themselves” or to reunite with family members already abroad, often  not viewed in the same favorable way? These children, as Bhabha notes, are impeded by conflicting legal and bureaucratic hurdles intended on one hand to protect the rights of children and on the other to protect national sovereignty. 

And if the solution to the rising phenomenon of unaccompanied children is to improve the conditions in their home countries, so there is less reason to migrate, why then is not the same standard applied when it comes to international adoptions? The author argues they should be viewed as a last resort, so that children have more of a chance of growing up with their own families in their own countries. The implication, of course, is that international adoptions, rather than being philanthropic, provide a convenient alternative for childless families in developed nations. 

This sort of ambivalence is a common theme throughout the book, and reminded me of the day several years ago when I accompanied members of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s newly formed Fugitive Operation teams, or Fug-Ops. We met before dawn at ICE’s headquarters near downtown Phoenix where I watched as burly, heavily armed members of the team finalized their list of “targets” —immigrants who had been ordered to leave the United States but had remained after their deportation dates had passed and were therefore now considered immigration fugitives. All of the targets were what one ICE supervisor had referred to as “low-hanging fruit”— fugitives lacking criminal records living and working relatively openly in the United States despite their removal orders under the mistaken notion that no one would come looking for them. After agents knocked on the door of one house, I watched from the curb as a teenage girl, a U.S. citizen left behind with a legal resident aunt, stood outside in the doorway tearfully calling out, “Mommy, Mommy” as agents took her mother and father away. 

Afterwards, back at ICE’s headquarters, the supervising Fug-Ops agent asked me what I had thought of that morning’s raids. I found the work heartbreaking and told him the arrests seemed to confirm critics’ accusations that the newly energized policy of aggressively pursuing undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children was breaking up families. The ICE supervisor, acknowledged that the raids were indeed heartbreaking. But he quickly dismissed the criticism that the raids were tearing apart families. The deported parents, he argued, were free to leave with their U.S. citizen children instead of leaving them behind with legal family members or friends. 

Since then, more than 100,000 undocumented parents of U.S. citizens have been deported, according to some estimates, and indeed many of them have taken their children with them rather than live apart In her book, Bhabha makes a compelling argument that thousands of U.S. citizen children have been subjected to “defacto” deportations as a result of the government’s removal of their undocumented parents. 

Bhabha’s book is provocative on many levels, pointing out that while migrant children are afforded certain human rights protections under a growing body of international law, these rights are frequently rendered ineffective by the push to deport migrant children at the country level. 

Daniel Gonzalez, a senior reporter at The Arizona Republic, writes about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and Latino affairs. He was co-lead reporter for The Republic’s 2014 “Pipeline of Children” series about the surge of unaccompanied children and families fleeing Central America, which was awarded the 2015 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism. He also received this year’s Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. He is a two-time Virg Hill Arizona Journalist of the Year. He has a journalism degree from The University of Iowa.


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