Social workers address child immigrant crisis

Sep 19, 2014

By Rena Malai, News staff

Crossing through jungles and desert heat on foot, eating trash to survive and dodging gang members and traffickers along the way is what many children from Central America face as they make the perilous journey to the U.S. border, says Wendy Cervantes, vice president of Immigration and Child Rights at First Focus in Washington, D.C.

Although the trek is dangerous and death along the way is probable, staying in their countries often means certain death, rape or recruitment into gangs, she said.

Fleeing danger is why as many as 60,000 children have migrated from Central America to the U.S. in less than a year, causing a humanitarian crisis and prompting President Obama to ask Congress for nearly $4 billion to help deal with it.

NASW has recently released a social justice brief — “Unaccompanied Migrant Children: Overview & Recommendations” — that outlines the issue.

“Unfortunately, this situation is not short-term and is fraught with many dire bio-psychosocial issues that should galvanize social workers and others from the helping professions to collaborate with the U.S. government to alleviate the crisis,” the brief says.

Cervantes said more than 57,000 children 12 years old or younger have been turned over to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement within the last few months.

“They are fleeing from incredible violence,” she said. “The reason they come alone, for the most part, is because they’re running to safety and they have family here in the U.S. waiting to receive them.”

Once the children arrive at the U.S. border, their journey is far from over, said NASW member Guadalupe G. Lara, director of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies in Detroit, Mich. She says this is a social work issue because social workers are in a position to advocate and assist these children through the maze of immigration court and immigration application process that follows their arrival in the U.S.

“Many are eligible for the Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa or asylum, but if they are not identified during their assessment by social workers, these children will miss out,” Lara said.

The children first turn themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol where they undergo a screening process to determine factors such as age and what country they are from, Cervantes says.

After their screening, they are sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement where they undergo another round of screenings, she said. They are asked vulnerability types of questions to determine whether they are victims of abuse and trafficking.

“They are held at border patrol for no more than 72 hours before they are turned over to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement,” Cervantes said. “The idea is to get them into a home setting. The majority of them do have family in the U.S. and they stay with them until their deportation removal hearing is scheduled.”

It’s a long process, she said, and many are traumatized by what they have gone through. It can take up to two years for the hearing to take place, and, depending on the verdict, they could be deported.

From the September 2014 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story after logging in.