Unaccompanied and Undocumented in America: Maria Hinojosa of NPR's 'Latino USA' on the Treatment of Migrant Children in Detention Centers
Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series on Maria Hinojosa and her expose on undocumented children detained while crossing the border.
Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of NPR's "Latino USA" and founder of Futuro Media Group, was born in Mexico City and grew up in Chicago in the midst of the civil rights movement. The tumultuous and historic era instilled in her the idea that everyone has a voice that should be heard. Hinojosa has worked tirelessly to broadcast the voice of la raza as a journalist, an anchor, an author, a producer and a reporter, delivering stories in both Spanish-language and mainstream media.
Hinojosa launched her own foundation, and being her own boss has allowed her to use language and deliver news that uplifts and informs the underserved and the unexamined. But she's had her work cut out for her. The untold stories of unaccompanied, undocumented children must be unearthed, and she has to dig to expose those stories. The children are vulnerable to U.S. policies, which fall short of international standards. American policy requires that unaccompanied migrant children who may be refugees must undergo asylum screenings and some trafficking screenings by armed and uniformed Customs and Border Protection officers; international standards say it's in the interest of unaccompanied children to be assessed in a friendly and safe atmosphere by qualified professionals.
Hinojosa has been covering the stories of these children since 1999, watching the challenging reality unfold. She told Latin Post the U.S. government has known about these children for over a decade — back when there were as few as 1,000 crossing unaccompanied each year. The numbers "didn't jump up to 90,000 overnight," she said. The not-so-sudden swelling of migrant children moving across the border, mostly from Central America, has overwhelmed immigration authorities, breeding insensitivity, according to Hinojosa. "If those were American children, this wouldn't be happening."
"Many unaccompanied migrant children are extremely vulnerable to abuse upon returning to their home countries," said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Subjecting them to conveyor-belt hearings or none at all is likely to result in the U.S. conducting unlawful returns that will put these children at grave risk."
Under 2013 legislation, European Union member countries may detain unaccompanied children only in "exceptional circumstances." Children must never be jailed and should be released as soon as possible. Belgium, for instance, has a wide range of housing options outside of detention, including individual and collective reception facilities. Also, in March, Malta's prime minister pledged to end immigration detention for children.
The gap between U.S. lawmakers' perspectives is vast: Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., has said, "Why aren't we putting them on a bus ... and sending them back to Guatemala?" Others have said the government should focus on deporting the "lawbreakers." However, change may be on the horizon for undocumented, unaccompanied children, hopefully leading to placement in more home-like settings with access to education, adequate nutrition and sanitation, social interaction, recreation, full and fair screenings, and the assistance of counsel and a guardian charged with representing their best interests.
The Vera Institute of Justice oversees programs at 22 nonprofits that provide assistance to children throughout the country. The Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act of 2014 (VIVA), introduced by House Democrats this week, was written to help undocumented children understand their options with the assistance of a lawyer before they appear in immigration court.
The proposed legislation would likely reduce the number of immigration court proceedings, decrease continuances, shorten the appeals process and assure that the children are treated fairly during proceedings. Additionally, decreasing time in costly detention centers and relieving the court system would save money. Nonetheless, comprehensive immigration reform is the ultimate resolution to quelling the suffering of thousands upon thousands of refugee children and adults, though Hinojosa said comprehensive immigration reform may be as many as 10 years away.
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