What I Saw at the U.S.-Mexico Border

August 10, 2018

UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl M. Stern visited the U.S.-Mexico border to learn more about the extreme hardships faced by families migrating from Central America.

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In July, UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl M. Stern traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with UNICEF colleagues and members of the American Academy of Pediatrics to see for herself the situation on the ground and to determine where UNICEF might be able to lend its global expertise. 

What did you see during your two-day visit to the border?

CARYL M. STERN: We were briefed by leaders and walked across the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge between Mexico and the U.S. From the bridge, we could see a large cross memorializing all those who did not make it safely across the border. 

On the U.S. side, in McAllen, Texas, we visited the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center run by Sister Norma Pimental. This phenomenal volunteer-staffed organization provides shelter, clean clothes, food and health services to migrant children and families after they have been released from detention. They are treated with dignity. Children have the chance to play with toys and just be kids again.

I am the daughter of a woman who fled Nazi Germany as a child refugee.... The current situation for children at the border feels all too familiar.

We also met with attorneys working on behalf of children and families and visited an immigration court in Harlingen, TX. Many of the children we saw were unaccompanied minors and most of them lacked legal representation.

On a personal level, I am the daughter of a woman who fled Nazi Germany as a child refugee. My grandparents had to make the agonizing choice to send my 6-year-old mother and her 4-year-old little brother to the United States on their own. It was the only way they could ensure their safety. The current situation for children at the border feels all too familiar.

UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl M. Stern met with mothers and children at a shelter for Central American migrants during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in July 2018. © Tanya Bindra for UNICEF USA

Tell us about some of the stories you heard.

CARYL M. STERN: Migrant children and families at the border have endured unimaginable hardship in their home countries and along their journeys. They are coming to the United States because they feel they have no other choice.

Migrant children and families at the border... are coming to the United States because they feel they have no other choice.

One woman had fled gang violence in El Salvador. A father traveling with his daughter cried as he told us that he had to leave his wife and son at home. He was so scared for them, but he said it was the only way he could possibly ensure that his children would have a future. 

The Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas provides food, shelter and medical care to newly arrived migrant families.  © UNICEF/UN0220983/Bindra

What is UNICEF doing to protect uprooted children?

CARYL M. STERN: UNICEF has a presence in 190 countries and territories around the world and over 70 years experience serving the world's most vulnerable children. We believe in a world where children are treated as children, regardless of their location or their legal status.

Today, we are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II: 50 million children around the world have fled their homes in search of a better future.

Today, we are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II: 50 million children around the world have fled their homes in search of a better future. From South Sudan to Syria, El Salvador and more, UNICEF works to protect children who undertake treacherous journeys at every step along the way — in their home countries, in transit and across borders.

Throughout Central America, dedicated UNICEF staff are working to protect children and address the root causes that force them to flee in the first place: violence, lack of access to education and job opportunities, and devastating poverty.

A cross on the banks of the Rio Grande commemorates all those who have lost their lives trying to cross the border.  © UNICEF/UN0220978/Bindra

What can Americans do to help protect children at the border?

CARYL M. STERN: My hope is that Americans will see that while these children may be labeled as refugees or migrants, first and foremost, they are children. We owe it to them to give them the childhood they deserve. UNICEF USA is committed to creating a world where every child is safe, healthy, protected and in school.

This is not about politics. We urge all policymakers to keep the best interests of the child at the heart of every decision, and we invite all Americans to join us in advocating for the rights of every child. 

This is not about politics. We urge all policymakers to keep the best interests of the child at the heart of every decision, and we invite all Americans to join us in advocating for the rights of every child. 

Learn more about how UNICEF is mobilizing to protect and support Central American children and families every step of the way.

 

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Top photo: UNICEF USA President and CEO Caryl M. Stern on the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge between Mexico and the U.S. © Tanya Bindra for UNICEF USA