Human rights advocate discusses child migrant crisis

A human rights activist speaking at the Lawrence Public Library Wednesday called on the United States government to provide refugee status to the migrant children crossing the Mexico border.

About 70 people listened to Jennifer Harbury, also an attorney and author, discuss the child migration situation occurring in Central America, including its roots and causes. Kansas University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies partnered with the library to host the event.

Harbury’s work as an activist and attorney led to major revelations in the 1990s about the CIA’s involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala. Speaking from her expertise in that particular area of Central America, she said the U.S. government’s complicity during decades of civil strife helped create the environment today that compels many children to flee north.

Harbury explained that unchecked military units in Guatemala and other parts of the region became partners in the international drug trade and engaged in wanton human rights abuses during political unrest.

Some military personnel were paid by the CIA to quell insurrections. Meanwhile, financial aid from the U.S. government was simply pocketed by military officials, Harbury said.

This all led to conditions in which children are either trafficked or forced into the drug trade. Harbury, who has assisted many asylum-seekers, spoke of a 14-year-old boy from Honduras who was beaten the first time he refused to join a gang. The second time, he was hit by a car and left for dead.

He then left, enduring a harrowing journey to the United States, where, after being apprehended, he was placed in a shelter near San Antonio with rampant human rights abuses, Harbury said.

“We need to understand these are refugees,” she said. “”They’re just trying to survive.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, over 53,000 migrant children have been apprehended from January through August. National news outlets in July reported that the Obama administration is looking into placing refugee status on children from Honduras.

Harbury said the United States could give the migrants a temporary protected status, where the government would no longer pay for their food and shelter and allow them to live in the country until their home is considered a safe place. Or, she said, other members of the United Nations could take in the children.

Either way, they can’t be sent back.

“If someone’s in danger of being tortured or killed in their own country and the government cannot or will not protect them, then you don’t get to send them back,” she said. “It’s a violation of international law.”