Missing Childhoods: Immigrant Minors Have No Access to Protection
of Their Human Rights
by Zhen Chen
Peter Orner, author of Underground America, talks about a series of human rights abuses through the narratives of undocumented immigrants. In these stories, most narrators had to face discrimination and exploitation and were treated unfairly by people in positions of power. Readers will be shocked to find out that not only adults but also minors are enduring social injustice. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nation in 1948, proclaims fundamental rights for all human beings, human rights abuses have continued to exist for decades. The U.D.H.R. states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). However, at this very moment, a large group of people, even minors, has to face multiple abuses of their innate and inalienable human rights in different countries such as China, Mexico, and the US. Because of political and economic reasons, such as political unrest, discriminatory policies, and poverty, many people, including minors, are forced to flee from their countries of origin and illegally enter the U.S., and these undocumented children have to face unfair and even inhumane treatment both in their home countries and in the U.S, which violates their human rights.
The second child of Mr. Lai, a narrator of a story in Underground America, was threatened to be killed by the local Chinese government because Mr. Lai didn’t obey the one-child policy, which discriminated against unborn babies’ right to live and was enforced by inhumane treatment— forced abortion. Mr. Lai, a typical parent living in a rural area in southeastern China, loved kids, hoped to have more children, and was too frightened to lose his second unborn baby; thus, he and his wife hid in their sister’s house until the baby was born. Based on the policy, their second pregnancy was deemed “illegal,” and so their house was destroyed by the local officials as a punishment, making Mr. Lai even more determined to leave China. His wife was eventually forced to have a hysterectomy; otherwise, she would have faced imprisonment. With great disappointment, Mr. Lai sad, “I just had no faith in China” (Orner 36). The enforcement of the one-child policy, which abused their most basic human right, took away uncountable unborn babies’ lives. Even though some babies survived, their parents had to pay penalties or let them live without legal status for many years. The U.D.H.R. declares that “Everyone has the right to life” (Article 3). However, without birth registration, unborn babies were not allowed to be born in China. No matter the Chinese government’s explanation of how important the policy is to economic and social development, it cannot be denied that the harsh policy violates the right to life, and forced abortions and sterilizations are inhumane. From 2015 to 2016, the policy started to be dismantled, but pregnancies still must follow certain laws. The Chinese government, which tends to be autocratic because of the single-party communist political structure, through its supreme power, has commanded its people, such as Mr. Lai, to strictly comply with the family planning laws. Mr. Lai’s case demonstrates that the implementation of one child policy in China forced him to kill his second child by forced abortion, and the discriminatory policy most certainly abused the child’s human right to life.
In another instance, Roberto, coming from Mexico, had to drop out of his elementary school and work under terrible working conditions because of poverty; attracted by better working opportunities, he became an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. and still experienced exploitation in the workforce solely due to his legal status. In Mexico, Roberto first fled to Mexico City from a small ranch because his family was poor and his father always beat him badly. At age ten, he dropped out of school and got his first job, which was still very vivid in his memory because it was so dangerous, although he felt independent. He worked “on a plank of wood, lassos around our waists…eight stories up” (Orner 58). His employer was not concerned about his safety. Eventually, Roberto escaped to the U.S. for a better life and worked very hard to support himself and his mother still living in Mexico. During the time he worked as a farmer in the fields in the U.S., he watched undocumented children that were under ten years old working in the sun for a whole day. He said, “You see it, and it makes you want to cry” (Orner 63). After leaving the farm, he found an easy job in a tortilla factory in San Jose, California, but was paid only $4.50 an hour, which was less than the minimum wage. According to the U.D.H.R, “Everyone has the right to education…at least in the elementary and fundamental stages” (Article 26). Due to economic and political reasons, some children have to give up on education, or even worse, have to endure unsafe working conditions, long working hours, and unequal pay. The U.D.H.R states that “Everyone has the right to security”( Article 3); “Everyone has the right to rest…reasonable limitation of working hours” (Article 24). Roberto, like many other immigrant minors, was forced to give up on his right to education, leave his native country, and experience exploitation because his family had no financial ability to support him based on the economic situation in Mexico. Moreover, as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., his “illegal status,” ruled by the immigration laws, made him vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination by his employers in the U.S. Roberto’s case shows that both economic and political inequality lead to abuses of his human right to education and exploitation from his boss.
Because of the unstable political situation in Guatemala, Eduardo, Orner’s asylum-seeking client, was tortured inhumanly by a paramilitary officer for over a decade, and his traumatic experience violated his human rights to be treated humanely. Due to the fact that Eduardo was tortured from when he was five years old until he was seventeen, Orner considered this case strong enough to convince the judge. Nevertheless, the judge still ruled against Eduardo. Orner thought the judge might have seen too many similar cases in one day, and that it negatively impacted the judgment. This case reflects other children in Guatemala who also suffer violent assaults. Another book, which was written by Lauren Markham, called The Far Away Brothers, shows readers that not only boys but also girls face sexual assaults when they escape from Central America. Markham points out that “In 2010, Six out of ten migrant girls were sexually assaulted en route to the U.S- other estimates are even higher” (159). When these migrants arrived in the U.S., some still experienced sexual abuses at detention centers. “In 2014, Houston Chronicle investigated 101 reports of sexual misconduct…the alleged sexual abuse was often accompanied by threats…” (Markham 85). These boys and girls are innocent and don’t deserve to experience physical or sexual abuse. They might believe that escaping to the U.S. is the best choice for them because the U.S. is known as a country that protects human rights. The U.D.H.R. states that “No one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 4). Therefore, the physical assault that Eduardo suffered, and the sexual abuses that some undocumented girls experience, both violate basic human rights and are caused by complex international politics, such as the civil war in Guatemala, and the detention system in the U.S..
Desperate political and economic situations cause forced migration, but living in the U.S. without legal status, many undocumented minors are forced to be separated from their families, which violates their human rights to family. Roberto’s description of his forced migration is heart- breaking: “Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I cry by myself. Sometimes I scream by myself. Who am I? I’m nobody” (Orner 74). Even though the U.D.H.R. states that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state” (Article 26.3), many undocumented immigrants are not allowed by the laws to reunite with their close relatives in the U.S. because they are living without legal documents. From all these cases that I explain previously, readers can feel each narrator’s pain of separation, and it seems to be so difficult for them to connect with their family members based on the harsh immigration laws in the U.S. Moreover, a lot of undocumented minors don’t have legal ways to protect their human rights to reunite with their families if the discriminatory laws keep ignoring their human rights.
Due to socio-structural change, including social and political institutions, many children who escape from abusive situations in their homelands and flee to the U.S. have to face different abuses of their human rights, involving the right to life and security, the right to education, etc. While many might think each example of child abuse is a singular violent action, various cases show us that socio-structural change, which is composed of politics and economies, is likely to result in multiple human rights abuses to children. Others might argue these children choose to give up on education by themselves. However, they drop out of school due to the desperate economic situations. Although all human beings are born with human rights regardless of nationalities, some children are confronted with human rights violations because they lack access to resources. Social and political inequality cause them to suffer human rights abuses. Furthermore, both economies and politics contribute to forced migration, and many undocumented minors are legally excluded from human rights and treated unfairly by discriminatory immigration laws in the U.S.
Markham, Lauren. The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life. Crown, 2017.
Orner, Peter. Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. Verso, 2017.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/