Unlike almost three-quarters of high-income countries, the U.S. does not prohibit or limit the detention of accompanied asylum-seeking children, a study released on Wednesday finds.
The study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health's WORLD Policy Analysis Center (WORLD) looked specifically at laws affecting asylum-seeking children — youth seeking protection from human rights violations in their home country — and migrant children — youth leaving their country for a variety of reasons such as economic opportunities, education or to join family.
According to their findings, the U.S. does not have legislation protecting accompanied migrant children.
“The U.S. lags behind when it comes to protecting the most fundamental rights of migrant children,” said Dr. Jody Heymann, director of WORLD and professor at UCLA. "Adopting legal protections that provide for the types of effective alternatives to detention modeled elsewhere is critical to bringing the U.S. in line with its peers."
Of all United Nation-member countries, low-, middle- and high-income, only 11% legally protects accompanied minor migrants from detention and less than a quarter legally protects unaccompanied asylum-seekers, the researchers found.
Migrant children today are arriving alone as a choice by their family to send them across the border without parents, often with siblings or other family members, and the goal is to reunite later. Parents send children across the border hoping they'll get preferential treatment from U.S. immigration officials.
Other times, parents dispatch children from their home countries if they're threatened and the parents can't make the trip, advocates said.
Since taking office, President Joe Biden has begun unraveling many of former President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies. In March, the Biden administration announced that it will restart a program that reunites children from several Central American countries with their parents who are in the United States legally.
But Heymann expressed caution about past and present White House policies.
“The child detention crisis did not begin or resolve with a single administration," said Heymann. "These longstanding gaps in the law have left countless children vulnerable to grave health risks and human rights violations."
The research center analyzed legal provisions of the 150 most populous U.N. member states to create comparable data that assesses the quality of legal protections the states have for migrant and asylum-seeking children from detention.
The study identified whether countries that permitted detention offered access to health care, access to education, ensured family unity and separation from an adult stranger. Forty-four percent of high-income countries allowed detained children access to health care, the U.S. not being one of them, the study found.
Children in crowded detention centers were at higher risk of contracting illnesses, including COVID-19, the report said. A report published last year analyzing COVID-19 cases in immigration detention centers from April to August of 2020 found that the COVID-19 case rate in detention centers was more than 13 times the rate of the U.S. population each month.
The study adds that influenza, varicella and mumps have also broken out in detention centers from January 2017 to March 2020.
“While detention on its own has grave implications for health, conditions of detention routinely exacerbate these health risks while threatening migrant children’s other fundamental rights.” WORLD research analyst Amy Raub said in a statement.
Among the fundamental rights, only 34% of high-income countries grant detained children access to education, which the U.S. is also not a part of, according to the WORLD study.
Alternatives to detentions, or ATDs, have proved to be effective, the study also found. Successful alternatives include being placed with a vetted host family, a designated residence or community-based case management.
“Not only can ATDs eliminate detention’s grave health risks to children and their parents, but they can also dramatically lower government costs,” Heymann said. “This is good public policy in terms of effectiveness and cost efficiency… and it is also simple human decency.”
Contributing: Rick Jervis and Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY