Beyond Basic Needs: Fostering Intentional Spaces for Migrant Children's Voices and Identity
By Wendy Young and Jasiel Fernández
As he described the ordeal that was his trip from Honduras to the US, I saw a sparkle of wonder deep in his eyes. His young 17-year-old face, that had had its shares of experience far beyond his years, slightly wrinkled as he smiled. “While waiting to hop on La Bestia [the infamous migrant train through Mexico], I saw a boy playing with toy cars in the dirt. I sat playing with him for hours like I too was 8 years old, como un niño. Maybe it’s because I never had any toys, but I felt so good that day, I felt like I stopped time.”
Under the current climate, migrant children’s protections erode in rapid fire fashion with minimal time to address the deeper, foundational issues affecting the child. In our roles as passionate advocates focused on protecting and caring for children, we run the risk of ignoring that children have individual identities worth preserving. Children’s idea of self is primarily predicated on their sense of permanence and attachment. As practitioners supporting migrant children in their journeys, and advocating for their basic legal rights, we find ourselves indirectly preserving their sense of personhood and ethnic/cultural wealth. By prioritizing indigenous language support or appreciating cultural diversity through a responsive lens, practitioners become first responders in fostering a sense of permanence for migrant children, establishing a possible life-long deposit to their notion of self and belonging. The interdisciplinary model espoused by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), focuses on safeguarding children’s legal rights as much as their individual dignity, recognizing that as advocates we support clients’ permanence and attachment on multiple fronts. While we help our clients navigate the maze of paperwork and procedure that characterizes our immigration system, we become witness to the unfolding of existential journeys of many.
Migration comes with an inevitable dose of grief and loss, especially for children. As detailed in the article, “Impact of Punitive Immigration policies, parent-children separation and child detention on the mental health and development of children” migrant children, especially those in detention facilities, experience marked disruption in their attachment with increased levels of toxic traumatic stress. In our continuous task of advocating for due process, protection, and care, we amplify their trauma, lack of opportunities, and bleak statistics. While we cannot negate the impact of the inhumane targeting of migrant children, strictly following the advocacy vortex, however, can undermined the inspiring resilience, sense of identity, and deep connection to community that migrant children bring with them. Host countries welcome invaluable potential when migrant children receive support, nurturing, and encouragement to thrive. As supporters of migrant children, do we commit to bringing parity in our portrayal of immigrant communities? Do we espouse a culturally responsive, strengths-based approach recognizing that vulnerability and strength do not constitute mutually exclusive concepts? Do we make space for immigrant children to amplify their own voices? Social determinants of health encompass many aspects—migration certainly becoming a very salient one. It is ever so critical to support migrant children’s rights, access to safety and care in increasingly more determined ways than ever. The genius centers on doing so while recognizing the immense wealth, potential, and dignity of those on whose behalf we advocate.
Strengthening connectivity toward multi-disciplinary support for migrant children and their caretakers provides a long-term investment in permanence. As practitioners, we must cultivate an integrationist lens for the benefit of migrant children, aiming for immediate impact while cognizant of the future dividend found in healthy and thriving communities. Various research shows that the mitigation of traumatic experiences has its roots in secure and safe attachments. A child’s ability to stop time to find respite and healing during a treacherous journey provides a poignant reminder, compelling us to preserve and celebrate the resilience that inspires our work.
Wendy Young, JD, MA
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
Washington, DC, USA
Jasiel Fernández, MA
Deputy Director of Social Services
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)