March 3rd marks four years since the news first broke that the Trump Administration was considering a proposal to separate children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. This proposal quickly became policy and, by mid-2017, thousands of migrant children and families were in the throes of a humanitarian crisis — here, on American soil. The nightmare that ensued — more than 5,000 families separated; thousands of migrant children in U.S. detention centers without adequate food, water, and sanitation; and unspeakable allegations of child torture, sexual assault, and death — will haunt us for generations to come.
Today, more than 600 migrant children are “lost” to the system, with parents that may never be located. In addition, there are children ready to return to their families NOW, but with the moratorium placed on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportations, no funding is available to help them return. Good intentions of the new Administration are actually keeping some children separated inadvertently.
Although our nation’s status as a beacon for human rights around the world may be irreparably tarnished, there are several steps the Biden Administration can take to create a better future for children here and abroad.
First, in its next report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, due in January 2022, the United States must address its treatment of migrant children. In recent years, cross border families have been subjected to practices that are in direct violation of the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Protocols as well as basic U.S. child welfare protections. If a U.S. child were subjected to anything comparable in the state child welfare system, the state agency would be sued and placed under close supervision to improve its practices immediately.
Second, the Administration should create a comprehensive, interagency return and reintegration program — modeled on the U.S. Repatriation Program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — so that children, adults, and families who are citizens of other countries can plan a safe return to their home countries and have access to necessary services upon arrival. Multiple federal agencies — including HHS, the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Interior, and USAID — play a role in international child welfare and protection, but their efforts are not coordinated in a way that maximizes outcomes for children and families. ISS-USA has developed and piloted a program that has served over 58 children and over 250 family members who have returned to Guatemala and Honduras since 2018. Those children have remained with their families and are receiving the care they need to thrive.
Take nine-year-old Sarita* from Guatemala, who returned to her mothers’ care in 2019 after nine months of separation. An ISS social worker in Guatemala met Sarita and her mother at the airport and traveled with them on the 18-hour journey home. The remote, marginalized community where they lived had no formal organizations, no school, and few employment opportunities. The social worker identified a job and housing for Sarita’s mother in a different area where Sarita and her siblings could be enrolled in school and receive services without being separated from their mother. The family received food and clothing donations, and the social worker identified NGOs to provide additional assistance to help stabilize the family. ISS-USA continues to offer support with monthly provisions and weekly calls.
Third, the Biden Administration should work with Congress to ensure adequate federal resources are consistently invested in child welfare and protection efforts at the state, federal, and international levels. Since child welfare systems are administered state by state, there is a critical need to ensure every state has access to policies, technologies, and services to assist children with families in other countries as well as those with families in the United States. Child protection systems should be strengthened and employment and educational opportunities for families enhanced. ISS-USA also recommends investing in the care and protection of children in adversity, especially in Central America; building stronger families can help prevent mass migration movements.
ISS-USA is uniquely positioned to prevent children from disappearing. As part of a network of over 100 countries and with contacts throughout the United States, ISS-USA is renowned for its ability to reunify and reintegrate children and families separated across borders. We stand ready to work with the Biden Administration to renew America’s commitment to the highest standards for child welfare and protection — and to plan the best possible outcome for every child.