shutterstock_72598729In 1999, the United Nations designated August 12 as International Youth Day in order to highlight children’s opportunities, challenges and contributions on the world stage.  This year, the focus is on the migration of young people, in order to raise awareness of the positive contributions made by young immigrants as well as the many risks and dangers that children face whose migration is caused by war, poverty, persecution, or unjust migration policies. The United States has examples of both, including the numerous success stories of immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, as well as the accomplishments of many unauthorized DREAMers and DACA  recipients. Unfortunately, this is also a day to point out the negative impact that current immigration policies have on some of the most vulnerable migrants.

For instance, the number of unaccompanied child migrants entering the United States – or unaccompanied alien children (UAC), the term the federal government uses – has been on the increase, even as overall undocumented immigration is falling. The majority of unaccompanied children, who arrive without a parent or guardian, are coming from three Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The reasons children make a harrowing journey to the U.S. alone are varied, but include poverty, abuse, violence, human and drug trafficking, as well as attempting to reunify with family already in the U.S.

Immigration reform would help unaccompanied children, especially policy changes included in legislation that senators already have approved, according to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND):

Provisions in the Senate bill, S. 744, include appointed counsel for unaccompanied children as necessary, and for children returning alone to their home country, support for their safe and sustainable return and reintegration so they do not have to make the life-threatening journey to the U.S. again. Giving the Attorney General the authority to appoint counsel will ensure that unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing persecution, conflict, severe abuse, abandonment, or deep deprivation, can make their case for U.S. protection before an immigration judge. Without counsel, they can be returned to their home countries, where their well-being, or even their lives, may be in danger.”

In addition to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States, millions of children in the U.S. whose parents are undocumented live with anxiety over the potential separation of their families. Indeed, their formative years are “saturated with fear – fear that the people they love and depend on will be arrested and taken away from them at any moment without warning,” describes Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman adds that “many of these children were born here and are U.S. citizens. But under current immigration policy, their families can be torn apart with an arrest and deportation with little regard for their well-being or futures.”

A recent study explored the situation of the 4.5 million U.S. citizen children who are in mixed status families, where their parents and, in some cases, siblings are undocumented. The report found that, in 2012 alone, 150,000 children have been separated from one or both parents because of current immigration policies, which can have negative effects on the children’s behavioral and mental health. If current policies do not change, more than 153,000 U.S. citizen children could have a parent taken away from them each year. That could lead to more children living in a household with poor health and nutrition because of a parent’s detention or deportation.

The greatest tragedy of these statistics is that they are preventable. Valuing family relationships—making it easier for parents and children to reunite or stay together—should be a key component of U.S. immigration policy. Too often, in the rush to deportation, the human costs and their aftermath are ignored.  Today is a good day to remember the children who are confronted by the flaws of our immigration system on a daily basis.

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