Skip to main content

Press Conference on Children in Detention: “Children Do Not Migrate. They Flee.”

A child being held by parent

“Children do not migrate. They flee.”
– Dr. Marsha Griffin, quoting Dr. Fernando Stein former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Immigration policies created to maximize speed end up minimizing the opportunity for fair treatment, and the detention centers that are tasked to house and care for asylum-seeking children are inhumane, says a panel of immigration advocates. Now, a new proposed policy may further exacerbate poor conditions, instead of alleviating them. Welcome with Dignity recently hosted a press conference about the hardships faced by children as they seek safety at the US-Mexico border and the failings of our system to protect children whose families come to seek a better life. Marsha Griffin, MD, Clinical Consultant for Migrant Clinicians Network, former MCN Board Member, and long-time collaborator for Health Network expansions at the US-Mexico border, joined Miriam Abaya, Esq, Vice President of Immigration and Children’s Rights with First Focus on Children, and Jane Liu, JD, Director of Policy and Litigation at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, as the panelists for the conference.

The Biden Administration’s proposed policy, that opponents have taken to calling an “asylum ban,” would result in the continuation of large-scale rejection of people seeking protection at the US-Mexico border, with most people required to ask asylum in other countries first. Dr. Griffin spoke out against the proposed asylum ban, saying “there is nothing in this proposal that considers the best interest of the child… Families do not leave their families, homes, and everything dear to them to seek safety if it is not a life-or-death situation. They deserve our protection, not our abuse.”

Dr. Griffin, who has spent the last decade of her career working to draw attention to the trauma faced by children during the immigration process, talked about the worsening mental health of children in detention. “There is no amount of time in detention that is safe for a child. They know that children often quit eating, they quit speaking, they resort to previous times when they were not potty trained, they dissociate from their parents,” Dr. Griffin said. “Everything within detention is psychologically harmful for a child because it is prison. They realize their parents have lost the authority to protect them and support them.”

The conference highlighted a new report from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and First Focus on Children – “Fast not Fair.” Presenters Liu and Abaya discussed some of the difficulties children face during the asylum-seeking process.

“Children have specific and unique needs and vulnerabilities, and they need time to be able to prepare their claims and present them in a child-friendly and non-adversarial setting,” said Liu. “The asylum ban provides for none of that.” 

The report goes into detail about many of the difficulties children face. “One trademark of the immigration system is expedited processes, where individuals seeking asylum have a short period of time to make their claim for protection.” This short time frame is made even more difficult by language barriers and the frequent lack of legal representation. In a period of seven months analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, “only 15.5% of asylum seekers had legal representation.” Even with representation, children need time to “feel safe” in order to share pertinent information for their case to seek asylum, time that our system often does not allow, says the report. Expedited processes also prevent children from making a separate claim for asylum from their parents. Additionally, the report states that fewer than 4% of unrepresented families won their asylum cases.

This report notes that expedited deportation – defined in the report as “a legal authority given to immigration officers to order an individual’s deportation from the border, without a hearing before a judge and with little or no access to legal counsel”– means that all encounters with immigration officers at the border can end in deportation if an asylum seeker mistakenly says, for example, that they are not fearful of returning home. Instead of receiving a credible fear interview where the asylee can explain why they may not feel safe returning home at length, they can be immediately sent for deportation.

“Children are often forgotten and ignored in US immigration policy, and sadly, sometimes, cruelty to children is the point of US immigration policy,” said Abaya. “For too many years, administration after administration has turned to policies that send children back to danger. It is not because they do not qualify for protection, it is because they haven’t had a chance to make their case in a system that recognizes that they are children.”

Speakers shared concluding statements on what needs to be done to address many of the flaws in this system. 

“We need to abandon this policy in its entirety,” Dr. Griffin said. “Instead, we need to focus on what is in the best interest of children and how we want to be seen by the world as a country.”

“The Biden Administration can and must restore and rebuild our asylum system to protect children,” said Abaya. “Children and family should be greeted with welcome at the border. Child protection professionals, pediatric medical professionals, and nonprofits should be the first line of contact for children and families to meet their immediate needs and inform them of next steps in their best language. Throughout this process, families must stay together, and our government has to acknowledge an expansive definition of family.”

Dr. Griffin concluded at the press conference: “We don’t have to do it this way, and it happens every day.”