Human Rights Column: Reflections from the Border: Advocating for Migrant Children’s Rights

August 5, 2019

What prompted the migrant caravan? A first-hand look at two epicenters of the immigration story.

Border wall at Tijuana, 2014. Marcela Barroso. CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Border wall at Tijuana, 2014. Marcela Barroso. CC-BY-SA-4.0.

As a Program Leader with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, I visited Honduras in December 2018 to examine the root causes of migration. In northern Honduras, women leaders who were members of Foro de Mujeres por la Vida (Women’s Forum for Life), a coalition of feminist groups engaged in several justice struggles, described in detail various human rights violations as the reason many Honduras have left their homes for safety. The following month, January 2019, I visited Tijuana, on the U.S.-Mexico border, to bear witness to human rights violations that were occurring and continue to occur there.

As a human rights educator, I work with young people of color who are frequently denied access to art education in New York City. In my time at the border, I  worked with several different organizations, including Enclave Caracol, Al Otro Lado, World Central Kitchen, and New Sanctuary Coalition. I met many unpaid volunteers who have committed countless hours supporting asylum-seekers and migrants. The reality at the border, especially for children, continues to change each day, but the efforts of activists and humanitarian workers also continues.

In Tijuana I saw, heard, and experienced many different stories from many different people:

  • Stories of kidnapping and of deportation from people of all ages and from all backgrounds;
  • The tortuous holding cells, las hieleras (“freezers”) that immigrants, including children, are kept in when taken into custody by the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP);
  • The kindness of volunteers who worked tirelessly in preparation of 3,000 daily meals in a temporary shelter / camp for immigrants and asylum seekers;
  • The temporary shelters where whole families, including mothers and their infant children, lived in an abandoned nightclub in the outskirts of the city;
  • The exhaustion of legal volunteers, both temporary and long-term, providing asylum seekers with their very limited options and helping them to better understand their rights;
  • Activists who placed their bodies on the line, camping out in the shelters with immigrants to help delay the evictions of asylum-seekers;
  • Stories of families tear-gassed in middle of the night;
  • A tear-jerking wedding of two migrants on a rooftop;
  • Children of asylum-seekers who were so excited to see new faces to play with, as they waited for their parents.

Many of the issues are complex. Yet some elements are not complex at all. These include the inhumane conditions that asylum-seekers are forced to endure once in CBP custody. Addressing these are a matter of basic human rights and dignity that cannot be overlooked.


US-Mexico border at Tijuana, 2007. Photo Tomás Castelazo. CC-BY-3.0.

This November, the United Nations will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a “legally-binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic social and cultural rights of every child [individuals up to the age of 18], regardless of their race, religion or abilities.” The United States remains the only country in the world that has not yet ratified this treaty.

Despite the rights guaranteed for children under the CRC, the United States continues to place children in detention. In March 2019, almost 40,000 children will come into the custody of the CPB. Unaccompanied children are placed in particularly precarious situations. I heard stories of teenagers seeking asylum who were frequently turned away from overcrowded shelters. Social workers, volunteers, and others providing assistance to migrant communities are warned not to transfer unaccompanied minors, as that places them at risk of being charged with kidnapping. Other children in CBP custody are frequently transferred from shelter to shelter until the age of 18. At 18, everything changes. In many cases, these young people are locked up in adult detention facilities, despite the protests of immigrant rights activists.

Migrant children in detention facilities within the United States must receive free public education as guaranteed under federal law. Yet the education that migrant children receive is inadequate and does not accommodate children with special needs. In the heavily regimented environment, children also fear that they will be deported back to their home countries, where many have fled because of violence and other dangerous circumstances. The detainment of children and the trauma that they have experienced, along with the disruption to their education, will have effects for the rest of their lives. In an exhibition in El Paso, artwork was showcased by several children who were detained in the now-closed detainment camp in Tornillo, Texas, reminding us of the trauma, desperation, and devastation they experienced in the detention facilities and their journeys crossing the border.

Despite these massive human rights abuses of children and their families, I believe that there are several ways that individuals can continue to take action.

First, education is critical. Organizations like Human Rights Educators USA (HRE USA), Teaching Tolerance and other networks and organizations of human-rights practitioners continue to mobilize groups of educators who seek to create safe learning spaces for undocumented students and provide resources for educators to teach their students about the situation at the border.

Second, members of the immigrant rights community continue to advocate for language that does not dehumanize immigrants and asylum-seekers. As long as migrant children and their families are described as “illegal” and “alien,” they will be continued to be dehumanized and deemed unworthy of rights.

Third, we must continue to support the grassroots organizations that are doing work with and for immigrant and migrant communities. Organizations that I visited in Tijuana, such as Al Otro Lado, work tirelessly to support asylum-seekers. So do organizations like the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, which organizes accompaniments for people “facing deportation to their immigration hearings” and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are deserving of donations, future volunteers, and other assistance as they support the migrant communities they serve.

Lastly, coupled with the help of grassroots organizations on the ground, we must continue to hold the United States and the larger international community accountable. Recently, on behalf of HRE USA, I attended a meeting with the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights organized by the United States Human Rights Network (USHRN), where members delivered over 80,000 signatures calling for a United Nations investigation of human rights violations against migrants and asylum-seekers at the Mexico-US border. This was a powerful, symbolic act. But signatures are not enough. People must continue to understand and take action on what is happening at the border. For instance, until mid-May, the United States Commission on Civil Rights is collecting Public Comments on Immigration Detention Centers & Treatment of Immigrants.

I continue this work within my own community in New York City. While I was at the border for a very brief period, my time there was a reminder not to become desensitized to the violations of human rights and not to forget the children who face an uncertain future. Months later, I find myself thinking about the child I played with for hours, who jokingly stuffed toy cars in his shirt and never ceased to make the same jokes with me while I played with him. I think about his mother in search of diapers for his baby brother and clothes to help keep her children warm through the cold, Tijuana nights. I wonder if he will receive the same dignity and rights that others have been afforded, just on the other side of the border.

Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is the Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE), a non-profit organization which works to amplify the voices of young people for human rights change through the visual arts. She also serves as the Co-Chair of Human Rights Educators USA, a growing network of human rights practitioners dedicated to building a culture of human rights across the United States, and is an Adjunct Lecturer in Art Education at the City College of New York.


Sources consulted:

UK Save the Children. Available at:

ACLU. Available at:

CNN. Available at:

NPR. Available at:

New York Times. Available at:

Vice. Available at:

New York Times. Available at:

CityLab. Available at:

New York Times. Available at: