SANTA BARBARA — With President Barack Obama pushing for a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S., and a vocal opposition promising to challenge his plan, comprehensive immigration reform is taking center stage in American politics. The arguments often overlook an especially vulnerable group of migrants — children, UCSB reported in a media release.
Since 2004, some 70,000 children have immigrated on their own to the United States, without parents, guardians, or legal documents. Sometimes referred to as “the lost boys and girls of the Americas,” their numbers are growing, with nearly 14,000 arriving in 2012 alone.
The rise is seen largely as a result of increasingly rampant and vicious crime, corruption, and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico — four countries that together account for 97 percent of these “unaccompanied alien children.”
Fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries and taking often harrowing journeys to enter the U.S., they’re seeking a better life.
Are they getting it?
Assessing these children’s health and access to health care is one way of answering that question, according to demographer and migration scholar Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a doctoral candidate in geography at UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State University.
In a new article published online by JAMA Pediatrics, Kennedy argues that an apparent dearth in mental health services for migrant youth is exacerbating existing problems and creating new ones — for the kids and for the country at large.
“They’re leaving conflict-torn countries and taking long, dangerous journeys. They get here and are supposed to receive mandated services, but in the area of mental health care, the facilities caring for them fall short. And no one knows what happens to most of them once they leave,” Kennedy stated in the media release. “What is happening? Are they getting an education? Are they adjusting? Often they’re fending for themselves, they have mental health issues that are not diagnosed, and they are self-medicating in destructive ways.
“This is definitely something that hasn’t received attention, and it should,” she added. “Some would say ‘Well, it’s a small population.’ And it is, but they could potentially have a large impact, especially as they’re becoming a part of our larger undocumented population.”
Sent to live in short-term, temporary facilities while awaiting unification with family stateside — or deportation proceedings sending them back to their countries — alien children are under U.S. government care for approximately six to eight weeks.
They’re entitled to medical and mental health care for the duration. However, Kennedy said, it is unclear whether they’re getting much of the latter.
Her article, “Unnecessary Suffering: Potential Unmet Mental Health Needs of Unaccompanied Alien Children,” cites a Congressional study finding that, in fact, from 2004 to 2007 most of these youth weren’t receiving any therapy: “75 percent did not have evidence of group counseling, and 56 percent did not have evidence of individual counseling.”
“Of those who received counseling…