We must stand up and speak for the children

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More than 60 years ago, the world, represented by the United Nations General Assembly, adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child to recognize and promote the most fundamental rights of children. Among other rights, children must be given the means for normal development; hungry children must be fed; sick children must be nursed; orphaned children must be sheltered; children must be put in a position to earn a livelihood; children must not be exploited; children must be the first to receive relief in times of distress. Children in need must be helped. 

Thirty years later, in 1979, the world again recognized and documented the rights of children, adopting the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. This international treaty recognized that special care and assistance for children is a universal human right, and in all actions involving children, the “best interests of the child” should be the primary consideration of states. Even before the United States signed the Convention, the “best interests” standard served as the cornerstone of a robust legal architecture erected by every state in the U.S. to safeguard the well-being of children. 

Today, we are witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record, with an unprecedented 70.8 million displaced people around the world who have been forced from their homes. Half of these people are children; some are refugees, some are internally displaced, some are stateless, and some are asylum-seekers. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes, displaced children are particularly vulnerable.

They are “at a greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment. They may also have witnessed or experienced violent acts and/or been separated from their families.” The world must remember and reflect on the reasoning behind the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and on whether states are acting in the “best interests of the child.” I’ll be blunt: the United States of America is not.

As families and children have fled to the United States in search of safety, they have been denied universally recognized rights, and the U.S. government is erecting every potential barrier to keep them from accessing protection.

The administration is actively eroding the fundamental best interests of the child standard in our immigration system. Is it acting in a child’s best interest to rip her out of her mother’s arms because she crossed a border to seek asylum? Is it acting in a child’s best interest to detain him for prolonged periods in prison-like conditions? Is it acting in a child’s best interest to hold her in squalid conditions and deny her edible food, clean water, medical care, and even basic hygiene? Is it acting in a child’s best interest to shuffle him through asylum and immigration court procedures as quickly as possible while denying him access to counsel and other safeguards? Is it acting in a child’s best interest to force her into adversarial immigration court proceedings, rather than the non-adversarial proceedings that have long been deemed more appropriate for children? Is it acting in a child’s best interest to weaken or remove child-friendly practices for unaccompanied children appearing in immigration court? Any reasoning human being will say no.

As a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.S government has pledged not to act in a manner that undermines the best interests principle. Yet, with the Trump administration’s systematic assault on the rights of migrant children, it is clear that the best interests standard is no longer the fundamental framework guiding decision-making for all children in the U.S. Could it be that they have forgotten that all children have certain absolute rights? Could it be that recognizing these rights is inconvenient to their own political goals and self-interests? 

Well, this is not about politics. This is not about self-interest. This is about simple right and wrong. These children are vulnerable human beings, and as human beings, they have rights. It is our moral imperative to acknowledge our common humanity and to honor our commitment to act in the best interests of all children, no matter where they were born. America is failing to meet that commitment. We must stand up and speak for the children.

Dree K. Collopy is a partner at Benach Collopy LLP, adjunct professor at the American University Washington College of Law, chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s National Asylum & Refugee Committee, and Author of the leading treatise on U.S. asylum law, AILA’s Asylum Primer. Follow her on Twitter: @DreeCollopy. 


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