"Because of violence worldwide, recent years have seen an increase in the number of unaccompanied children"
 Colette Dauite

Colette Dauite

Joan Antoni Guerrero
Colette Daiute, Professor of City University of New York


On 6 June, Professor Colette Dauite of City University of New York gave a talk as part of the conference Migrant children and youth: Realities, challenges and possibilities for educational equity and social justice held by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). In her talk, which bore the title "Experiences of Activists Mediating the Politics of Immigration Reform", Dauite provided an overview of the current immigration situation in the United States and the main challenges it poses. The conference was held as part of the project Crossing Borders to Connect Routes. Researching with educational communities to promote equity and fight racism towards immigrants in a post-pandemic world, led by the transdisciplinary UOC research group Nodes. In this interview, Daiute warns that violence taking place worldwide has resulted in more unaccompanied children arriving to the US in recent years. This highlights the need for legislation that provides these children with better protection because, due to this and many other reasons, unaccompanied children will continue to arrive in the coming years. Daiute stressed the significant role played by nongovernmental organizations in guaranteeing these children's rights, with many of them being forced to languish in detention centres while awaiting an opportunity.

What is DACA and what has it enabled the United States to do while in place? What were the objectives of this policy when it was created?

Objectives of the 2012 DACA policy included protecting children brought without legal authorization to the United States from deportation, providing official identity documents that would allow them to work legally, affording them certain supports for education, and ensuring that they could live openly in the country they knew as home. Before DACA was rescinded in 2018, almost 700,000 people had become DACA-mented, meaning that they had applied for and been granted DACA (Daiute & Habteselasse, presentation on 6 June 2023 to the Nodes research group).

This policy was implemented by Obama. What action did the Trump administration take with regard to it? What has the Biden administration done?

In 2018, the Trump administration rescinded DACA with a variety of jumbled arguments, which were subsequently taken up in lawsuits on behalf of DACA-eligible youth. In 2019, the Supreme Court partially reinstated DACA, after lower courts had failed to satisfy the compliant. The Biden administration issued the “final rule” in October 2022, allowing DACA recipients to continue benefits and DACA-eligible individuals to apply.

What are the alternatives to DACA? In your opinion, how would you assess the positive and negative aspects of this policy?

The positive aspects of the DACA policy are, in brief, that it provided a means for individuals who had lived most of their lives in the United States, many knowing only the US as their home and speaking only English, to participate in substantive ways in society, to build futures and to contribute in many ways beyond paying taxes, which they already do. The negative aspect was that – given the Congressional stalemate on immigration policy since 1989 – DACA was established by executive order, which can be, and was, overturned. The alternative and next step is for Congress to approve citizenship for DACA-mented and DACA-eligible youth, with an extension to similarly deserving individuals born after 1981 (the cut-off date in the final rule).

In general terms, can it be said that the US is a country that handles the arrival of child migrants well?

Although providing some policies and practices, the US continues to fall short of expedited, humane and age-appropriate protection of child migrants. Unfortunately, justifications and strategies for including present child migrants have been embroiled in politics. According to current Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) practice, children under the age of 18 apprehended at the US border without proof of lawful immigration status or a parent or legal guardian are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR provides shelter, care and support services as children go through immigration proceedings. In spite of the Flores Agreement, which requires the government to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay, many children languish in detention settings, awaiting processing for many years. Because of violence worldwide, the numbers of unaccompanied children have increased in recent years. ORR reports placing many children with relatives and foster families.

Nevertheless, given projections that the causes of displacement and resulting numbers of child migrants will continue to rise, the need for legislation to increase funding for care and improve protections is urgent. An issue complicating successful treatment of child migrants is that an increasing number of them have been found working at very young ages in factory jobs, thereby exposing them to unhealthy conditions and making their attendance in school difficult or impossible. Recent attempts to address child migrant labour have also been mired in politics, with, for example, Democrats proposing to crack down on companies employing children and increasing funding to ORR, while Republicans propose strengthened border closures and increased vetting of placement families, which delays protection and inclusion.

In Spain, some political parties link young migrants to crime. Is the same link made in the United States? How do different political sensitivities include the challenge of immigration in their rhetoric?

As in Spain, some political leaders and parties in the US have linked young migrants to violent transnational gangs. There is no evidence that young migrants tend to be involved in gangs or terrorism, as claimed by some extreme political positions. Political arguments about immigration justice echo political positions on other issues, such as a woman’s right to choose abortion, and the sovereignty of individual states in determining law, which in the US tends to skew toward conservative and right-wing positions.

In your opinion, what can the social organizations working in this area do to help get legislators to change the legal framework in a way that respects the human rights that protect children? 

Based on research presented on 6 June, I will refer to suggestions made by activists (lawyers, paralegal assistants, student services officers and youth organization workers) (Daiute & Habteselasse, 2023). For example, one of our interviewees, a lawyer who also works with governmental agencies, suggested numerous strategies, such as identifying organizations that can safely compile data on the numbers of deserving immigrant youth, thereby increasing the strength of arguments for justice; working with the federal government to create clear roadmaps for citizenship; and advocating for federal aid to ensure that undocumented immigrant youth can complete higher education. Others have reported that colleges can promote the fair treatment of undocumented young people by providing emergency grants, food assistance, legal representation, guidance through processes that present many obstacles, and institutional recognition of student achievements and plights. In addition to advocacy for such initiatives, the paralegal aids we interviewed emphasized the need to support themselves and other immigrant advocates with positive energy, empathy and other kinds of support, given the very difficult work they do in the contemporary field of immigration.

How do you envisage a society being able to take in young migrants without the experience being traumatic?

Displacements caused by violence and climate disasters rob young people and families of the physical, social and psychological stability that characterizes healthy human development. Although many children and youth manage to make sense of disruptive experiences and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances, often across arduous journeys, displacement exposes them to multiple, diverse traumatic events. In addition to advocating for peace, my opinion as a developmental psychologist is that the most urgent and appropriate way to address the multiple problems of displacement, exclusion and poverty is to provide relief from deportation, safe family-like and community care, education, protection from abuses such as child labour, and participation in responsible collectives with justice goals. Our research has shown that nongovernmental and civil society organizations take on much of the responsibility for such assurances, indicating the need for governments to take up more of the slack.

Is there a single answer to the challenges posed by this question, or does each society have to find its own way depending on its own characteristics?

The United National High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) offered a multinational solution in the 20th century, providing protection to individuals forcibly displaced from their homes and at serious risk of losing their lives because of certain identity factors if they return. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child followed, yet leaves a gap for unaccompanied children, because a parent or legal guardian is the mediator of the child’s rights according to that treaty. Many nation-states are using the UNHCR convention, with additional national and municipal affirmations, to implement human rights procedures for vulnerable individuals, families and children. Practice, monitoring and improvement of such transnational agreements require constant attention, nurturing and creativity to ensure that those multinational values are provided.

Does the rise in far-right rhetoric pose a significant risk for people working in the field of migration, in reception and integration?

Yes, in the United States, public officials, and sometimes their families, are being threatened for their political actions and views. Such threats have been made, for the most part, by people claiming association with right-wing groups, including a current Republican party candidate for the upcoming presidential election. People working on migration support in nongovernmental organizations are not always as visible as public officials. However, given threats of violence to others working on issues like a woman’s right to choose, climate justice and election fairness, far-right rhetoric is an increasing danger.