04/04/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Migrant Children Are Children First

Co-authored by Carolina Jimenez, Program Officer, International Migration Initiative-Latin American Program, Open Society Foundations

In the span of just one week at the end of March, 370 migrant children from Central America were discovered abandoned in Mexico. According to Mexico's National Migration Institute, the children had been left in states across the country after traffickers took money to spirit them across the border, and then deserted them. The majority of the children showed signs of extreme fatigue, dehydration, and disorientation. The youngest was just 9 years old.

It is shocking and horrifying news. It is also -- unfortunately -- far from an isolated incident. The number of children from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico journeying alone to the United States has doubled each year since 2011. The U.S. government estimates that this year as many as 60,000 children will arrive in this country seeking safe haven. Most will not find it.

That's because -- in both Mexico and the United States -- underage migrants who are apprehended are treated as undocumented adults, rather than as the children they are. That approach can mean a child's experience after apprehension is as psychologically traumatic as the perilous journey itself. There is established international law enshrining the principle of determining the best interests of the child when making decisions about how children are treated after they are detained and whether to return them to their countries of origin. This is, however, not followed in practice. As a result, thousands of children and teenagers are housed in unsafe conditions, subjected to legal procedures unsuited to them, and sent back to communities where their safety and wellbeing are compromised. To remedy this situation, the US and Mexican governments need to fundamentally reform how they deal with this population.

As things stand now, the general policy towards all migrants who are apprehended crossing into Mexico and the United States is to detain and deport them. That approach is extended to children, despite the fact that they are an especially vulnerable population. That's not just because of their stage of development. Children and teenagers making the trip north are more likely than adults to report leaving their home countries to escape violence. While often this comes in the form of intimidation and extortion at the hands of armed criminal actors and gangs, many children also migrate to escape physical and sexual abuse in their homes.

To ensure that safeguarding the "best interests of the child" is in fact our guiding principle, we need to change how these children are screened when they are detained by immigration and law enforcement authorities. As soon as there is an indication a child is potentially eligible for asylum, the underage migrant should be referred to personnel who are trained to interview children and conduct a careful assessment of their needs. In Mexico, for example, law prohibits the detention of children who have been trafficked; better screenings and oversight can ensure such laws are applied in practice. Underage migrants also should be afforded legal counsel. And countries of origin -- Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala -- need to make a greater investment in the consular services they provide in Mexico. In particular, they need to do a better job of monitoring the conditions underage children from their country are subjected to -- and to advocate on their behalf.

"Children on the Run," a report released by the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last month, makes plain why authorities both here and in Mexico need to interview detained underage migrants with greater sensitivity to determine the risks they face if returned to their home country. Researchers spoke with more than 400 child migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. A majority of the children gave rationales for their trip north that could have made them eligible for international protection. Most, however, were returned to their home countries, without being provided proper protection and support.

Another recent report on unaccompanied minors, "A Trecherous Journey" by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the University of California Hastings Center for Gender and Refugees Studies, highlights the importance of providing children with legal counsel. Typically, the majority of unaccompanied children facing removal do not have lawyers. Lack of English--indeed, lack of education in their native language--severely hampers detained minors' ability to make their case for remaining in the United States to immigration judges. And without counsel, children are unlikely to understand the legal options available to them. Lacking representation drastically reduces the likelihood they will prevail in their case. As the KIND report puts it, our legal system treats these children as "adults in miniature."

It's not just in legal proceedings. Children are subjected to unsuitable conditions. In Mexico, detained migrants over the age of 12 are housed in the same facilities as adults. Placing a young teenager in that situation obviously puts them at both physical and psychological risk. Authorities should use community-based alternatives to detention and end detention of children all together.

Children are by definition vulnerable. That's particularly true for girls and boys journeying alone, under unsafe circumstances, often fleeing violence. Mexico and the US have an obligation to apply the international principle of the "best interests of the child" as the gold standard for all dealings with underage migrants. They should be treated first and foremost as children.