Katrina came into our office, a downtown Los Angeles skyrise, nervously smiling, nodding her head in respect as she passed the attorneys behind each desk. She was led to the center office, a fishbowl of glass walls, and sat down to a spread of assorted chocolates. She tucked her thick, black hair behind her ears and cast her eyes down and away as she began to speak.

Less than a year before Katrina’s visit to our office, she was kidnapped in her hometown in El Salvador by Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members and was held prisoner at a house with two other girls and a boy. Every day, she was beaten, gang-raped, and made to clean and cook for the MS-13 members. She received a beating with a baseball bat that left her unable to walk for days. After three months of being trapped in the house, Katrina was rescued by her father and taken to the local police, who told Katrina that they were unable to help her.

She began her journey north, fleeing to the United States. The trip through Guatemala and Mexico took just over a month. She rode “The Beast,” the railway frequented by hundreds of thousands of migrants every year, for most of her journey. She crossed the southern border of the United States with no money or food and was quickly apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol. Rather than receiving the relief and support she was desperately seeking, she was detained as a prisoner. Still wet from crossing the Rio Grande River, Katrina was locked in cell set to freezing temperatures and was denied food, water, and medical care. Every day during her eight days in detainment, far longer than the 72-hour maximum hold allotted for unaccompanied minors, she was fed a partially raw egg in the morning, a frozen sandwich in the afternoon, and one tortilla at night. She was transferred to a shelter and then released into her sister’s care in Los Angeles.

At 12-years-old, Katrina is one of the hundreds of thousands of kids fleeing the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—not for a job or to participate in cartel or gang activity as is often depicted in popular media, but to escape a kind of poverty and violence that is unimaginable for most Americans. The surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border from Central America is an issue far more complex than is often ascribed by the politicized rhetoric heard in American popular news, which often focuses on resource expenditure and border protection without acknowledging the direct contribution that U.S. foreign policy has made to the unrest and violence in the region. Moreover, even less attention is paid to the unmitigated human rights abuses, disregard for human life, and suffering the children experience once they reach the border.

The Surge

In the Fall of 2011, the number of Central American children crossing the U.S. border alone more than tripled. Since then, the numbers have doubled every year, amounting to nearly 70,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children in 20141. As “the surge” continues to escalate, narratives about why the kids are coming to the U.S. are debated in politics and the media. Despite the collective 432% increase in asylum applications to Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize to parallel the situation being faced by the United States, public opinion has become saturated in the assumptions that the children are coming for economic reasons and because of the misunderstanding of U.S. immigration policies concerning children as lax. Popular media fails to comprehensively cover the conditions in Central America that are causing massive forced migration out of the region and how the United State government is directly contributing to the push.

The United States government has a long history of actively destabilizing the region in order to protect resources and economic gain. The perpetual and intentional disruption of the security and stability of countries throughout Latin America allowed for the rise in power of street gangs and drug cartels following the “dirty wars” in the 1980s. To combat the rapid expansion of gang and cartel activity that was beginning to overflow from Mexico into the United States, the U.S. government enacted the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). Billions of dollars were spent to disrupt the flow of drugs from Colombia to the Caribbean Corridor. The narco cartels simply re-routed inland, and four in five flights of cocaine bound for the U.S. now land in Honduras. The CBSI is one in a series of policies implemented in Latin America that have militarized national police and security forces to fight the war on drugs. Rather than deterring crime in the region, U.S. security assistance has coincided with a drastic increase in violent crime. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the countries that have received the most U.S. “assistance” have become one of the most violent regions on earth; Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, with more than 90 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants, while El Salvador markedly has the highest child homicide rate in the world. Popular American media tends to disregard these factors and instead victimizes the U.S. by focusing on how the surge threatens national security and depletes the U.S. of valuable resources. Even media stories sympathizing with the plight of the children focus on their struggles in their home countries and fail to contextualize how the U.S. fits into the narrative.


Upon crossing the border, the children are “apprehended” by border patrol agents, even though many of them self-surrender as asylees. The children are placed in detention centers where they are held for days, often weeks, at a time. The imprisonment of undocumented immigrants is a point of contention in migrants’ rights debate in general, but detention centers have proven to be particularly inappropriate in handling unaccompanied child migrants. A group of five national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Justice Center, filed a formal complaint and are working on a lawsuit against the U.S. government for the “systemic abuse of unaccompanied immigrant children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.”5

Organizations working closely with the kids have documented thousands of cases of abuse by Border Patrol officers including: physical abuse (i.e., sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions); verbal abuse (i.e., racial insults, sexually-charged comments, yelling, public humiliation, and death threats); the denial of medical care; placement in freezing-cold, unsanitary and overcrowded cells; denial of food, water and clothing; denial of access to legal counsel or phone use; and exploitative labor (i.e., having to clean the restrooms in order to receive a meal).

Some children are hospitalized when they are released from CBP custody due to malnutrition and dehydration. While many of the practices employed by U.S. Border Patrol are blatant human rights violations and are unacceptable in the treatment of any person, the lack of training and expertise of the agents in children’s issues and trauma-informed care put unaccompanied minors at particular risk for abuse and exploitation. The children exist within liminal social, political, and legal standings, complicating how they are conceptualized by the U.S. government. The poor treatment they are receiving while in government custody is in part due to the government’s inability to legally and socially categorize them in a way that clearly delineates and justifies courses of action and treatment. The children do not fit into the binaries that normally function as the basis for determining the treatment and care one receives; they are conceptualized as both criminals and victims in that they are simultaneously “illegal” as well as refugees, and they are conceptualized as both children and adults because they are legally minors but have acted with agency in travelling to the United States alone and have a conscious understanding that their actions could lead to legal status. Border Patrol agents have been trained to protect the U.S. Border at all costs with the objective of safeguarding national security. This objective is challenged when the people they are dealing with cannot be justifiably treated as security threats because they are children and refugees. Political and social understandings of the children, still, tend to emphasize the criminality and agency of the children, which has allowed for the government’s actions to go relatively dismissed because it is “acting in the best interest of the nation.” These problematic conceptualizations continue to work against the children in the court system, as they move forward in their removal proceedings.

The Courts

Unaccompanied minors are not afforded legal representation for their deportation hearings and are expected pursue a specific claim and defend their case without legal counsel in one of the most complicated areas of law. Without legal counsel to help them navigate their cases, the minors are often misinformed or unaware of the myriad of legal relief they qualify for under international and domestic law. Non-profit organizations have stepped up to try to fill this justice gap by providing pro bono legal services to the children, but thousands of children are still left to represent themselves. They are placed in “surge dockets,” the initial step in removal proceedings, where 20-30 cases are heard in a single docket. This method was initially presented as a means of removing the children from detention more quickly and efficiently, but it developed into a mechanism for mass deportations and a venue for the exploitation of the children’s unfamiliarity with the legal process and lack of understanding of the consequences of immigration proceedings.

Many of the children qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a type of relief heard in State Court that recognizes unaccompanied minors’ need for protection if they have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents, and it is not in their best interest to return home. State Court judges have been reluctant to accept that these cases belong in their courtrooms rather than in immigration court, and often handle the cases impatiently and insensitively. For these particular cases, the children are forced to submit intimate and extremely personal information in the presence of dozens of strangers because these hearings take place in public court, often causing the child to experience additional trauma. This is one of the most difficult venues to the child to be successful in receiving legal relief due to the resistance from State Court judges to earnestly take on the cases as relief requests rather than criminal cases.


Unaccompanied migrant children entering the United States navigate a political, social, and cultural borderland—a system comprised of militarization, criminalization, and the general lack of awareness and expertise of State officials who come into contact with the children. These practices have created a liminal, unstable, and isolating experience for a population that has already experienced extreme trauma, loss, displacement, and abuse. The system is not only failing to protect and care for the children, but is functioning in a way that further exploits their particular vulnerability as children and refugees. With the number of children entering the U.S. expected to continue rising, the U.S. government needs to move away from “temporary crisis” mode and begin reforming the structures and systems the children navigate in order to function in a way that humanely and efficiently confronts the issue. This shift will rely heavily on the dismantling of the “criminal” narrative American politics and media has forced the children into. For comprehensive immigration reform to take place, it is necessary to start a new narrative— one that recognizes them as fragments of a broken system. Political and media attention needs to begin providing comprehensive coverage of the issue, including increased oversight of federal agencies that deal with the children and greater transparency and coverage of the U.S. funded militarization of many Latin American countries, which has helped fuel the forced migration. Along with policy reform, increased transparency and oversight of the issue may begin to inspire a shift in cultural understanding and heighten a more comprehensive awareness of the situation in the American public. This shift could inspire a political and social conceptualization of the children that more accurately reflects their reality and could help shape comprehensive immigration reform that would more effectively and humanely address the crisis.

Image Credit: Kordian via flickr

About The Author

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Stevie Gibbs studied Visual Anthropology with a concentration in human rights and social change at the University of Southern California. She has worked with Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that provides legal services to unaccompanied migrant children, conducting ethnographic research on the children’s experience in the U.S. immigration system and the role of non-governmental organizations in combating the issue. She is currently working on a documentary film on human rights abuses of migrant children in Department of Homeland Security detention facilities.