Children fleeing alone need our compassion and protection

November 7, 2023

Violence, conflict and oppression seem to be everywhere these days. The horrors in the Middle East, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti and many more places are devastating to contemplate. And the dangerous flight for safety they spur: Life-threatening travels on overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean, journeys through deserts, jungles and land controlled by gangs and other criminals who prey on those seeking safety.

And it is excruciating to consider when you know children are always most impacted and face harm no child should have to endure.

It is easy to feel helpless and powerless to protect these children. But we are neither. We can transform our compassion into action, and we can do so close to home. Our compassion for the most vulnerable is what sparks this concern, and the overwhelming drive to want to help is a vital part of who we are as Christians.

This is why I found myself in immigration court in downtown Baltimore this past July. I never had been to immigration court before but was there to witness what it is like for unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children to appear before an immigration judge.

Some of these children had legal representation; others did not. While sitting in the back of the room, watching young children represent themselves in their own deportation proceedings, what struck me was the obvious absurdity of the process. While the judge did her very best to repeatedly ask questions, make sure paperwork was in order, and wait for translators to become available, the entire atmosphere felt bleak.

There was no way for a child to adequately communicate their full story, if they even knew how to do so. We had a full docket to get through, and we already were running behind due to technology challenges at the courthouse. I watched child after child asked the same standard questions that allowed little room for the nuance of a story, if they could communicate it at all.

I was particularly concerned about a young person who appeared to be in the courtroom by himself, without a lawyer or anyone else with him. It was clear he did not speak any English. The court provided a Vietnamese interpreter by Zoom, but the judge and the young person still had problems communicating.  He told the judge he was 19, but he looked and acted much younger. There were a few adults in the room who were watching the proceedings. The boy left with one of these adults. This was disturbing because the relationship between the boy and the man was unclear and was not shared with the judge. The boy was so vulnerable and would have no protection if the older man was exploiting him in some way.

The courtroom is an intimidating place to be, even for adults. It was obvious this part of our immigration system was not designed for children, failing to take into account their age, developmental level or unique vulnerability. I know the United States can do better. We should do better.

Children who come to the United States without their parents or guardians and are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are placed in immigration proceedings in which they must make their case for U.S. protection. The children, who range from infants to teenagers, have come hundreds or thousands of miles to seek refuge. The stakes are high. Their future safety and well-being are on the line.

The process that brings them to court is complicated and adversarial. The children must counter a U.S. government attorney who, in most cases, is arguing the child should be returned to their country of origin — to the same conditions they fled. Some children have lawyers to help them in court; many do not, however. There are no public defenders in immigration court despite the complexity of the system and the children’s age. Those without attorneys have a slim chance of receiving protection because they are unable to navigate the system without legal help.

We are failing the many children who need and deserve our protection. But this does not have to be. We have the power to change the system.

A bipartisan bill just introduced in Congress is a common-sense fix that would help balance the system toward fairness for these children. The Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act would create more appropriate court settings that would help children understand and participate in their proceedings and give them improved access to legal services. This would increase efficiency in the system and protection for the children. The bill also could help the boy I saw in the courtroom; he would be able to access legal and social services at the courtroom, as well as adults who could potentially protect him from harm.

In a time when immigration has become impossibly politicized and completely removed from the humanity of individual immigrants themselves — including children fleeing alone — this bipartisan bill is a pragmatic step toward a more humane system rooted in child protection.

As Christians, we have a foundational belief in the dignity and sanctity of every human life. We believe in this truth because it’s what the Scriptures say about who and how we were created. Throughout Scripture, God reminds us to take care of the vulnerable in our communities, including the stranger. These sojourning children are some of the world’s most vulnerable, and they have been entrusted to our care. We must use our pro-life voices to ensure their safety, survival and flourishing.

The protection of any child never should be political. It should be a consistent conviction of our faith and shared humanity. While in our care, these children should also have our voice.

Children fleeing alone need our compassion and protection 

Bri Stensrud serves as director of Women of Welcome, a non-partisan Christian network advocating for immigrants and refugees. She is a member of Kids in Need of Defense’s Leadership Council advocating for the protection of unaccompanied children.