top of page

Take Me To EVENTS page

Justice for All… Experiences of Undocumented Youth with Law Enforcement


This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By J. Manuel Casas, PhD (Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara)

If I were to ask you in this post-Ferguson era which groups are affected by racial injustice in law enforcement, would undocumented immigrants be the first group that comes to mind? Many of us are familiar with the violence and the lack of justice to which Black and Latino youth are subjected. However, we are less familiar with how racial injustice affects unaccompanied and undocumented immigrant youth who have been coming into this country in significantly greater numbers in the last few years.

From the onset, it is important that we recognize and accept the fact that there are international mandates to guarantee safety and justice for these youth. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2014), the majority of these unaccompanied and undocumented immigrants (60%) have potential claims to be considered refugees because they are fleeing crime and violence in their countries of origin. The majority of these youth have been coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (the poorest and most dangerous countries in the hemisphere).  If returned to their countries, they will almost certainly be exposed to violence and the very real possibility of death.

Furthermore, the United States has domestic immigration laws and treaties with other countries to ensure the protection and safe passage of refugees (e.g., the Protocol on the Status of Refugees, signed in 1968 by President Johnson). Under these treaties, the United States may not return an individual to a country where he or she faces persecution from a government or a group the government is unable or unwilling to control. However, the United States continues to deport these youth at the expense of their human and legal rights. Countries, including the United States, can interpret international laws and treaties as they deem necessary or politically advantageous. Treating these children as refugees could have a tremendous impact on their present and future well-being.

Another area of injustice that merits more attention is the unwarranted violence and death to which the Border Patrol (the federal government’s largest law enforcement agency) has historically subjected immigrant youth. Unfortunately, such violence has often been ignored and/or gone unpunished. Recent events have made it more difficult to ignore.

  1. The new head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office recently made the troubling assertion that since 2004 the agency has apparently taken no disciplinary action against any agents who have used deadly force on suspected undocumented immigrants who may find themselves on either side of the border (Bennett, 2014).

  2. In February 2013, the non-profit Police Executive Research Forum reported that 19 of 67 shooting incidents by Border Patrol agents from January 2010 to October 2012 were fatal. They found that the agency violated accepted police practices and demonstrated a “lack of diligence” in investigating agents’ actions. A number of these individuals killed were actually on the Mexican side of the border (see Southern Border Communities Coalition, 2014).

  3. In May 2014, the American Immigration Council reported that 40% of abuse complaints (a broader category) filed from 2009 to 2012 remained unresolved. And in the resolved cases, only 3% found fault with an agent’s actions.

  4. In February 2015, nearly a year following the Administration’s vow to address Border Patrol agents who use excessive force, little progress is evident. There has been no resolution to any of the shootings, no discipline of Border Patrol agents and a review panel has still not issued recommendations for reform.

One dramatic case that demonstrates the issue at hand occurred in 2012 when a Border Patrol agent fired his gun into Nogales, Mexico, killing 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez as he was walking home from playing basketball. According to the Border Patrol, it was assumed that the boy was part of a suspected group of potential undocumented immigrants who had been throwing rocks at its agents. For this, he was struck in the back by at least eight bullets. Given the complicated investigation process for such cases and what could easily be interpreted as delaying tactics, no one has been held accountable for this killing yet. This case is still in the public eye because of its international nature. However, regardless of what side of the border the killing took place, this death should not be ignored.

In another disturbing incident on February 10, 2015, the shooting of unarmed Mexican national Antonio Zambrano-Montes by police officers in Pasco, WA, has caused a national outcry. Video footage shows Mr. Zambrano-Montes running away from police officers, at one point raising his arms, before turning around and being gunned down. Just as we cannot turn our backs on Ferguson’s Michael Brown, we should not turn our backs on José and Antonio.

The treatment of immigrant youth caught crossing the border has tremendous and potentially violent and/or harmful implications for their physical and mental well-being. There is a lack of policy, guidelines, procedures and resources to ensure that these youngsters are treated and processed through the legal system safely (e.g., adequate shelter), humanely (e.g., providing, educational, physical, and mental health services), efficaciously (i.e., access to legal representation) and expeditiously (e.g., timely adjudication of cases as prescribed by law) (for more see Women’s Refugee Commission, 2012).

As psychologists, here is what we can do in our roles as researchers, practitioners and/or policy makers to ensure justice for all:

  1. Given changing demographics, develop, improve and/or enhance education related to immigrant issues. For more, read the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration report (2012) and/or the Immigration Policy Center report (2012).

  2. Use the research on such topics as violence, racism, prejudice, and discrimination to develop “hands on” education programs for all ages to challenge such attitudes and behaviors.

  3. For psychological well-being, advocate to change and expedite legal and adjudicating processes.

  4. Concomitantly, advocate for approaches other than deportation that uphold existing laws and address humanitarian concerns.

For more on what psychologists are doing to help undocumented children and youth, read APA’s Monitor article: Helping immigrant children heal.

Biography: J. Manuel Casas, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology Department at University of California, Santa Barbara. He has published extensively and is one of the editors of the three editions of the Handbook of Multicultural Counseling. Dr. Casas was honored as a distinguished scholar in the field of Chicana/o Psychology by the Julian Samora Research Institute. He’s been honored as a fellow of Division 17 and Division 45. He received the National Latino/a Psychological Association’s (NLPA) Distinguished Psychologists Award, and the APA Division 17 Elder Recognition Award for Distinguished Contributions to Counseling Psychology. He’s also the recipient of the National Multicultural Conference and Summit’s Distinguished Elders Award.


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Washington, DC: Author.

Bennett, B. (2014, September 19). New border patrol oversight. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: 

Southern Border Communities Coalition. (October, 21, 2014). Border Patrol abuse since 2010: 31 killed by Customs and Border Protection. Retrieved from:

The Immigration Policy Center. (2012, July). Children in danger: A guide to the humanitarian challenge at the border. Washington, DC. Author. Retrieved from:

The Immigration Policy Center. (2014, May). No action taken: Lack of CBP accountability in responding to complaints of abuse. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:

The Police Executive Research Forum. (2013). U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Use of force review: Cases and policies. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2014). An Administration made disaster: The South Texas border surge of unaccompanied alien minors. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:

Women’s Refugee Commission. (2012). Forced from home: The lost boys and girls of Central America. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from

Image source: iStockphoto

175 views0 comments


bottom of page