Social workers address child immigrant crisis

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.

Several levels of social work have a role to play in the crisis, said NASW member Mark Lusk, professor at the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas in El Paso. Lusk has worked with migrant families and coordinates BSW and MSW student volunteers from the universities to help migrant families at shelters and facilities in the El Paso community.

He says one level is macro, as this is a social justice issue and the profession has to advocate for the best interests of children and families.

“Children and families need to be treated in the most humane way possible,” Lusk said. “We need to understand these are refugees or undocumented (immigrants) seeking safety; (they are) not criminals. We have an obligation to bring ourselves to the table to assist with shelters and processing facilities.”

He says the sudden influx of people arriving at the U.S. border is tied to the collapse of public safety and order primarily in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This is the result of the rise of organized crime over the past six to seven years.

“Those three countries have a very limited history of being able to function in post-dictatorship society, and they haven’t built up the kinds of judicial institutions that are meant to protect citizens,” Lusk said. “As people have been exploited, robbed and subject to violent crime, many felt it necessary to leave for the U.S. Without exception, they are here because they had to flee.”

Cervantes says it’s too early to predict the implications the issue will have on state child welfare systems, and it’s important for smart decision-making now to avoid placing children unnecessarily into the foster care system.

“It’s so important how we treat these kids,” she said. “Policymakers need to make decisions for the best interests of the child. We need to treat this as a humanitarian situation. Child safety should never be undermined.”

It can be difficult to understand what would propel a family to send a child on a dangerous journey alone, Lara says, but this has happened throughout history as children are sent away to be spared from danger and to head for a better life.

“From Ellis Island to the influx of Cuban migration in the 1980s, the children are sent away first,” she said. “Their families want them to be safe, and it’s done out of love and protection.”

Information and Resources


Other Resources

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. A fact sheet on the overall issue from First Focus is available on their Web site.
  • The Consortium of Hispanic Agencies (CHA) of Southwest Detroit is an entity of community-based, Latino-led organizations working together with other stakeholders promoting effective leadership, advocacy, policy change and culturally appropriate services to enhance the lives of youth and families in Southwest Detroit and to promote prosperity through economic and social justice.