The fate of migrant children in the U.S.: a matter of semantics | By Lauren Matarazzo

Praised by some and criticized by others, President Obama’s words last week regarding refugees were certainly long overdue. At the Leaders Summit on Refugees, which took place on September 20th, 2016, the President insisted on the universal human rights of every person. Additionally, he recognized that most refugees are women and children, that they are victims, and that they are “families who want to be safe and to work”(

In response to Obama’s words, Allen S. Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture remarked:

“While preaching to the world about compassion towards refugees, the president would be well-served to remember what is happening in our own backyard.”

Keller’s response, which was published in The Washington Post, stems mainly from the U.S. response to Central American migrants, many of which have been detained at the Berks County Residential Center, a facility where migrants are detained while they await their immigration hearings. Even though many of those fleeing Central America are fleeing due to safety reasons such as fear of gang violence, they are not treated as refugees, but rather as illegal immigrants.

It is important to recognize the difference in the terms refugee and migrant. Refugees are entitled to basic protections and may receive certain supports such as help finding a job, help enrolling in public schools, and medical assistance. Those who do not have refugee status are considered migrants or immigrants and do not receive the same supports or protections, and are often met with hostility from the country they flee to such as forced detainment.

The media source Democracy Now! published an interview with Keller and a 16-year old who has been detained for 11 months now at the Berks County Residential Center. The article entitled “Did Obama Host a Summit on Migrants While Ignoring a Refugee Crisis in the U.S.’s Own Backyard?” confronts the power of language especially surrounding the U.S. policy toward detainment of children, which states children should “seldom, if ever, be detained” rather than the original draft of the resolution developed at the Summit, which stated children should “never” be detained. The resolution was changed after the United States objected to the language of the original draft.

What we are witnessing at the Berks County Residential Center is a product of several semantic distinctions. Because many of those arriving from Central America are viewed as immigrants rather than refugees, their acclimation to U.S. society is often impeded and sometimes altogether denied. It is important to recognize the effects that these categories have on the opportunities given to children especially in terms of education, whether they are migrant, immigrant, or refugee. It is also important to consider the policies we have toward migrants and the effect a few words can have on a child’s life.

blog post by: Lauren Matarazzo

Sources: Remarks by President Obama at Leaders Summit on Refugees. (2016, September 20).

The Washington Post. A refugee crisis in our own back yard. (2016, September 20).

Democracy Now! Did Obama host a summit on migrants while ignoring a refugee crisis in the U.S.’s own backyard? (2016, September 21).


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