At this year’s annual benefit gala, KIND gave the 2023 Juan P. Osuna Memorial Award to Elba Coria Márquez, KIND’s Director of Advocacy in Mexico. The honor is presented to a KIND staff member each year who has made a lasting professional and personal impact on immigrant and refugee children’s issues, and on all those around them, as Juan had done in his many remarkable years at the Justice Department until his passing in 2017. KIND spoke to Elba about her long experience as a lawyer and advocate for unaccompanied children and her work helping establish KIND’s office in Mexico.
Q: What is your role at KIND and when did you start?
Elba: I started at KIND in 2020 as the Director of Advocacy in Mexico, but I knew about KIND a long time before that. In 2012, I met KIND staff working in the reintegration program in Guatemala. I also collaborated with KIND because I was working on issues of non-detention and alternatives to immigration detention of children and adolescents in Mexico.
My role has been focused on identifying opportunities for KIND to strengthen its presence in Mexico, and to promote best interest determinations and legal assistance and defense of children and adolescents in Mexico. I facilitate the collaboration of institutions to ensure the protection and rights of children and adolescents and establish procedures and mechanisms to improve the quality of their care and to determine their best interests.
Q: Congratulations on the award! How did it feel to receive?
Elba: I was surprised and very grateful to all of the people who made it possible for me to do this work and receive the award. I am also grateful that the work I do to protect the rights of children and adolescents in the context of migration and refugees in Mexico is considered worthy of such an honor. Unfortunately, it is necessary work in the face of complex migration policies and contexts, where children’s lives and rights are at constant risk.
I was happy to see all the effort and work of our KIND colleagues to put on such an event—all the human resources, creativity, and commitment involved. It’s important to recognize the work of the lawyers who collaborate with KIND. The night encapsulated how, through KIND’s commitment, our pro bono lawyers, and staff, it is possible to bring about transformations in the lives of unaccompanied children and adolescents.
Q: Why is KIND’s work in Mexico vital to protecting unaccompanied children?
Elba: About 20 percent of the people detected in an irregular migratory situation are children and adolescents—not a small number. Due to the current state of migration policies and practices in Mexico, these children and adolescents—who are either fleeing from violence or seeking to be reunited with their parents or relatives—are exposed to many risks to their lives, their integrity, and their safety. Many have suffered violence or exclusion in their communities of origin. Of the children who arrive in Mexico, a significant number are unaccompanied children, who are exposed to additional risks.
Current migration policies are conceived from a security and adult-centered approach; the needs of children and adolescents and their best interests are not incorporated into the design and implementation of policies. All public policy—in its design, implementation, and evaluation—should make the best interests of children a prime consideration. The current adult-centered approach has negative impacts on kids, for example, issues of family separation, where children and adolescents who enter with parents or caregivers are separated from their family either by migration control or through organized crime, kidnapping of migrants, etc.
In this context, KIND’s role in Mexico has been fundamental, to constantly focus on the children and adolescents who are being impacted by migration policies and whose needs and rights need to be prioritized. KIND has helped identify these impacts and implement protections for children and adolescents. KIND also provides families and children with the information they need to guarantee and demand their rights and achieve the protection and restitution of those rights when they have been violated—for example if they are assaulted, separated from their families, or need access to health services.
Currently, we are not representing children in Mexico, but we do provide guidance and legal accompaniment to children and families, and advocate for children’s legal representation and their due process and justice in legal procedures.
We also train government officials and institutions, for example from the Child Protection Offices of the Protection of the Rights of Children, on how to make best interests determinations, facilitate family reunification, and ensure that legal procedures protect children’s rights.
To my understanding, there is no other civil organization in Mexico that is specifically dedicated to the defense of the rights of unaccompanied and separated children in contexts of migration. We are probably the only organization that has this mission in Mexico, which means there is a lot of opportunity for advancing children’s protection.
Q: Could you give an example of the impact of KIND’s work in Mexico?
Elba: I recall a case of two Mexican children who sought protection in the United States because an organized crime group wanted to recruit them, and one day they seriously injured the children. Their caregivers were afraid for their safety in their community and took the children to the border. The children were still visibly injured when U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered them, but they were rapidly returned to Mexico. In Mexico, they were in a shelter and Mexican authorities were going to send them back to their community. KIND received notice of this case, and we talked to the federal authorities to ask for support with local child protection authorities. This intervention and the support of KIND’s team resulted in a proper best interests assessment. Both adolescents were then able to access the United States and be reunified with their family.
In this case, we from the advocacy side were able to support legal programs in making the proper contacts to limit further harm to the children and coordinate with local authorities. It was probably the first case we had of a Mexican kid in Mexico. The case inspired us; it showed us the enormous potential of KIND to protect the rights and best interests of all migrant children who need protection and security. The case also reaffirmed the necessity of placing migrant child protection in the correct place: not in immigration systems but in child welfare and child protection systems, not only at the national level but also binational and regional levels. Children are just children, regardless of their nationality.