Feminist Organizations are Fighting for Migrant Children at the Border

In an office somewhere “near Minneapolis,” a 12-year-old migrant girl sits in a brown office armchair wearing blue jeans, a green plastic wrist watch and a Minnie Mouse necklace. A reporter talks to her in Spanish.

“Can you tell me what it was like inside the detention center?”

Even though her head is cut off by the video to preserve anonymity, the girl’s voice is clear as she lists atrocities on her fingers. “They gave us little food. Some children did not bathe. They didn’t bathe them. They treated us badly where we were. They were mean to us.”

This is only the first conversation in TIME’s first-hand video confirmation of the horrors facing children, like that 12-year-old girl and her 6-year-old sister, at detention centers along the border.

The video was released at a key time, when the humanitarian crisis unfolding at border facilities has dominated headlines and sparked numerous protests. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was on one recent visit by over a dozen lawmakers organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, tweeted a viral series of threads detailing the “unconscionable” state of the camps she visited.

But so far, few signs of resolution or relief have come into focus, despite mounting activism and a growing series of shocking reports by members of Congress, individual activists, lawyers and media outlets that detail horrific conditions for migrants—including lack of adequate food and water; insufficient hygienic resources; overcrowding. denial of basic needs as punishment; rampant racism and dehumanization by CBP officers; and, in the case of one 15-year-old girl from Honduras, sexual assault from a male officer during a routine pat-down in front of other migrants and officers. Even visual documentation of these conditions haven’t changed directives from the White House or the procedures ICE and border enforcement agents perform. Instead, access to detention facilities has been tightened and restricted.

( Charles Edward Miller / Creative Commons )

But what the growing outcry has increased is global attention to the crisis—with feminists continuing to stand on the front lines of the fight against these atrocities.

“This should never happen anywhere,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said on July 8, adding that she was “appalled.” (Her comments that were in unsurprisingly stark contrast to President Trump’s boast just days before about how the facilities were “beautifully run.”)

“If you look at the conditions of custody at the border, it’s really primarily small cells used for processing with the intention of very quickly turning [people] back because they had no legal basis for wanting to stay in the United States,” Michelle Brané, Senior Director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a global nonprofit that fights for the migrant and refugee women’s rights, explained. “As that demographic started to shift, what we started to see is more unaccompanied children arriving and more women arriving with children. Eventually, that dynamic and demographics sort of expanded to a lot of men coming with their children and full families. [The holding cells] are no longer appropriate settings for these children and families. They’re not built for families.”

The WRC has been monitoring the border facilities and family separations for years—and although up until about a decade ago, the “vast majority” of migrants apprehended at the border were adult men looking for work in the U.S., a relatively recent trend shows more families and children caught in CBP’s systems. Since first publishing a report on the phenomenon in 2012, the WRC has continued to find a steady increase in the number of families immigrating and protections were put into place. Then, as Brané put it: “fast forward to the Trump administration.”

“From the very get go, the Trump administration has been really gung ho on reversing those protections,” she said. “They immediately started attacking policies that provided protections, for children in particular, calling them loopholes, and some of these laws are things that the Women’s Refugee Commission as an organization really advocated and fought for.”

But taking away legal protections for women and children wasn’t the end of it. The WRC had also been monitoring family separations since 2006, when the separations were implemented “not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of practice or circumstance.” According to Brané, that also changed under Trump. In 2017, the WRC realized that the administration was going to start separating families as a “matter of policy.” Through exposing them to the public and threatening to sue, they managed to stave off official implementation.

In the current climate, the WRC sees itself supporting migrant women and families in court, often working with the ACLU to advocate for their rights, stop family separations and increase social workers on-site, as well as continuing to “hold [the Trump administration] accountable.”

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights iadvocates for the rights of migrant children as Child Advocates, appointed by the Department of Health and Human Resources, who meet with children in federal custody “every week,” according to Laila Alvarez, the Volunteer Coordinator at the Young Center’s Los Angeles site.

“These children need advocates,” Alvarez told Ms. “They need someone to listen to them, amplify their voices and accompany them through a complex process.” Much like the WRC, the Young Center deals with both litigation and advocacy on behalf of migrant children and are active in protecting them. 

“Almost every week, there is some new policy or practice that limits the ability of children to be safe, to have a fair day in court,” she continued. “We are working to respond to those changes without losing sight of our ultimate goal: to change the immigration system so that children are treated as children first. We need everyone to join us, raise their voices and funds, to make sure this issue is not sidelined—and protect immigrant children’s rights.”

It’s a tall order, but together women’s organizations might be able to fulfill it. With protests and legal challenges to the Trump administration’s policies showing no sign of slowing down, what is certain is that they’re determined to.


Willow Taylor Chiang Yang is a current summer intern for Ms. Magazine, which perhaps gives an idea of her feminist leanings. In addition to being an outspoken women's rights advocate and a proud, politic-loving Asian American, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, her grade's Student Council representative and a devotee of convoluted sentence structure. She was also a Senior Project Editor for the Since Parkland Project, and appeared on ABC7's Midday Live.