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Jenna Tsui headshot

COVID-19 Puts Migrant Children at Huge Risk

The plight migrant children now face are a reminder that NGOs assisting them, including RAICES in Texas, need more individual and business support.
By Jenna Tsui
Migrant Children

From urban locations to rural areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt hardships to millions of citizens around the world. Many have realized that the pandemic discriminates against citizens with fewer resources, including impoverished families. What about the migrant children detained at the U.S. border?

There were nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors who came into the United States last year. Here's how they've been affected by COVID-19; and the plight migrant children face are a reminder that nonprofits assisting however they can, including RAICES in Texas, need more individual and business support.

Ill-equipped environments can't handle a pandemic

When a migrant children arrive at the U.S. border, they're held by the Department of Homeland Security until they're transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This transition must happen within three days. It's up to the ORR to assign them a social worker, who determines whether or not they can stay legally. The child lives at a shelter throughout this process.

Unfortunately, these environments don't have the tools to handle a pandemic. A single shelter can be responsible for a thousand kids at one time. How are these group facilities supposed to follow the Center for Disease Control's guidelines? There isn't enough space to socially distance — some detention centers crowd up to 20 occupants inside a single cell.

If conditions are already unbearable for detained migrants without COVID-19, it's difficult to believe that these facilities can handle the coronavirus outbreak.

Current preventive measures to take on COVID-19 are failing

The U.S. government has a responsibility to protect these individuals from harm. Children don't have access to resources that can help them and their families deal with dire situations. Although the federal government took some measures to maintain detention centers over the past few months, it's also obvious it could have done much more.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continued to book individuals even when staff and detainees tested positively for the coronavirus. As a result, hundreds of them have contracted COVID-19. Many reports indicate that employees at shelters for migrant children are at risk, too. What happens when there aren't any caregivers to supervise, let alone watch over detained migrants with COVID-19? Add the inability to maintain social distancing, and the result is an ongoing human rights crisis.

“It’s impossible to socially distance in these ICE facilities,” said Efrén C. Olivares, Legal Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at Texas Civil Rights Project, in a public statement earlier this year. “So, by holding our clients at their discretion, ICE is asking for an outbreak that will endanger the lives of the entire community, in areas that are already starting out with fewer healthcare resources.”

There's also been a massive issue with personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. It's become known that detention centers don't have enough access to masks or soap, like many places throughout the country. If these locations don't have the proper procedures to combat the coronavirus, it's best to immediately release detained children to their U.S.-based family members.

The U.S. government hasn't taken that approach. Like migrant workers, it's apparent these children can't travel home safely — as a result, they become stranded.

​​​​​​​The U.S. continues to deport kids unsafely

The standard immigration process for migrant children involves several steps. If a social worker finds that a child doesn't meet legal qualifications, it's up to U.S. agencies to organize a plan so they can return to their country. These procedures involve contact with the child's family, who determines whether or not there's a safe place to live back home.

At the moment, it's become increasingly tricky for organizations to do this. Many countries have closed their borders, so scheduling flights is a near impossible task. There's also no way to tell if a family can house their child, as many areas don't have access to proper COVID-19 tests. These obstacles haven't stopped the U.S. government from taking certain actions, though.

ICE continues to deport many migrant minors to their home countries. These children don't have an opportunity to seek asylum — and they can't communicate with their families properly. As a result, they show up without any security measures. It's common for their parents not even to know they're on their way until they arrive. These measures push kids back into unsafe environments.

​​​​​​​Detained migrants' COVID-19 exposure has increased

As the coronavirus continues, it's clear that detained migrants face unique problems. The U.S. government must take the necessary steps to create a safe environment for these individuals. Otherwise, these children, through no fault of their own, will continue to encounter several life-threatening health risks.

"The administration is using coronavirus and the pandemic as a cover for doing what it has always wanted to do, which was to close the border to children," Jennifer Nagda, the policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, said to CBS News last month. "There is no reason why unaccompanied children arriving at the border can't be safely screened and transferred to ORR custody, where capacity is at an all-time low."

Image credit: Samantha Sophia/Unsplash

Jenna Tsui headshot

Jenna Tsui is a technology journalist who covers the latest news in technology, disruptive tech, and environmental science. You can read more of her work at The Byte Beat.

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