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April 20, 2022

Responding To: Innovating Protection for Children Along the Migratory Route and at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Mobilizing a Constituency for Refugee and Migrant Children: Experiential Learning in Centennial Lab Course at Georgetown

Katharine Donato, Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration, School of Foreign Service; Elizabeth Ferris, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration

For the past several years we have co-taught an experiential course on refugee and migrant children. Thanks to generous support from the GHR Foundation, the course has included a week-long international trip to see firsthand how children are treated when they seek to cross borders. On one level, this provides a wonderful educational experience for 15 Georgetown university students who are able to take the course. Yet, on another level, it helps to build a constituency that, in the future, we hope will advocate for the protection and integration of refugee and migrant children. Of course, reading and studying about immigration and refugee policies are important to understand international standards of child protection. However, even more important is learning from empathic volunteers who work with children, hearing government and UN officials who explain their programs, and spending time with children and teenagers who are caught up in the migration journey.

This experiential course, called the Centennial Lab course at Georgetown, combines rigorous classroom study with travel experience. In 2019, we took students to Sweden—arguably the most child-friendly country in the world—to look at policies and practices toward refugee and migrant children arriving on its borders. We identified a number of positive practices that can serve as a model for other governments. For example, when unaccompanied children arrive in Sweden, they are assigned a legal guardian, a social worker, a lawyer, and either foster parents or supervisors in a group home. This means at least four people are looking out for the child’s interests, so that if one of them falls down, three others can step up. In contrast, other countries, such as the United States, assign guardianship of unaccompanied migrant children to the Department of Health and Human Services and they do not have a right to legal counsel. In Sweden, the guiding principle for decisions on asylum is determination of the best interests of the child (as spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child). By contrast, the United States (with an exception for child victims of trafficking) does not emphasize what is best for the child; instead, children must meet the same standards as adults for asylum.

This spring semester, our course focused on U.S. and Mexican policies toward children, mainly Central American children, who had left their homes in search of protection, reunification with family members, and economic survival—or sometimes for all three reasons. We began the course in the classroom where we studied global standards for child protection, refugee and migration law, and the history of U.S. and Mexico policies toward children who arrive at both U.S. and Mexican borders. We divided students into three research teams to prepare the class for the trip. The first researched the drivers of Central American migration (why do children leave their homes in search of safety and survival?); the second focused on U.S.-Mexico border policies (what are the ways the U.S. government prevents people from arriving and applying for refugee status?); and the third examined Mexico's policies (how is Mexico coping with large numbers of children in transit to the U.S. border, and to rising numbers of Central Americans and others applying for refugee status in Mexico?).

The high point of the course was an eight-day trip to El Paso and Mexico City which we took during spring break in March 2022. It was a powerful experience for all of us—to speak with a human rights lawyer while standing at the wall, to visit Central American migrants in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, and to experience what it is like to cross the border. We also visited a shelter for migrants in El Paso and marveled at the volunteers who helped migrants on their way. We were surprised to learn that not only Central Americans are arriving at the border, but also Haitians, Turks, Brazilians, and even a few Russians and Ukrainians. We visited non-governmental organizations like the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, heard from a border expert who is a professor at the University of Texas in El Paso, spoke with the UN Refugee Agency tasked to protect refugee children, and were briefed on the work of the U.S. consular office in Juarez. We then traveled to Mexico City and had another series of rich and informative meetings there. These included a series of lectures at the Colegio de Mexico on different aspects of the Mexican context, such as the large number of U.S.-born children returning to Mexico with their parents,  how Mexico's 'war on drugs' which has increased violence and led to displacement of many Mexicans, the turbulent history of U.S.-Mexican relations, and the network of shelters providing assistance to migrants throughout Mexico. We also met with representatives of the International Organization for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the director of COMAR, Mexico's refugee agency. One high point was hearing about the Mexican Coalition for the Rights of People with Disabilities, where we learned of the particular risks faced by child migrants with disabilities, and heard about the many children who become disabled on their journeys to the United States.

All in all, traveling to El Paso and Mexico City was a powerful and moving experience for both the students and the professors. Experiential learning classes, such as Georgetown’s Centennial Lab courses, offer a different and unique learning opportunity. It is one thing to read about and see videos of the border wall, but it is another to experience standing in front of the wall, waving at Mexican children on the other side, and wondering why so many U.S. border enforcement vehicles suddenly appeared around us. Another powerful moment was when we heard from Honduran parents who had to leave their country and their children in the middle of the night because of threats from gangs and are now waiting in Juarez for a change in U.S. policies so they can cross into the United States. Or from a gay man who was living in southern Mexico until gangs threatened to recruit him as a member multiple times.

These types of experiences are not just transformational for those of us who participate in them. They can mobilize a constituency of young students who will advocate for the rights of migrant and refugee children throughout their lives. Young people bring energy and enthusiasm to bear on many social justice issues—from climate change to anti-racism work. Hopefully, those who just returned from Mexico City will be change agents in their communities for migrant and refugee children and, in the future, work to ensure that children forced to flee their countries receive the protection, welcome, and support they deserve.

Katharine Donato is the Donald G. Herzberg professor of international migration in the School of Foreign Service and director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration. She is a member of the faculty committee for the Collaborative on Global Children's Issues.

Elizabeth Ferris is a research professor with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University. Ferris has extensive experience working on humanitarian issues, both at the operational level and in research institutions, most recently at Brookings. She has written many books and articles on refugee and humanitarian issues.

Other Responses

Paulina Olvera Cañez
Espacio Migrante

Paulina Olvera Cañez, Founder and Director, Espacio Migrante | April 20, 2022