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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

/ Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

The United States is currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of children traveling alone through Mexico, without parents or other family members, and arriving at our southern border. The number of these children apprehended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased from an average of 6,500 per year prior to 2011 to an unprecedented 60-90,000 children expected in 2014. Although mostly teenage boys in 2011, the number of girls and younger children (under 12) has also been steadily increasing. Although the number of children apprehended at the border decreased by about one-half in July compared to previous months, the numbers remain higher than in the past, with about 177 unaccompanied children apprehended each day in July. For more details on these developments, see our news section, particularly “Brutality and ‘The Beast’: Why Child Migration to the U.S. Is Slowing Down” (August 12) and “Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming” (July 30).

The majority of children are arriving from the three Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as Mexico, and have multiple and complex reasons for leaving their homes, including:

  • Unrelenting, ruthless violence perpetrated by criminals, gangs, and drug cartels
  • Severe deprivation and poverty
  • Abuse in the home
  • Reunification with family in the U.S.
  • Illness, physical decline, or death of kinship caregivers in home countries
  • Opportunity for education and employment

These unaccompanied children are in need of immediate protection and safety, services to ensure their well-being, and reconnection with family when at all possible.

The following reports document the reasons children flee their homes and their treacherous journeys:

The CICW (formerly the MCWNN) has issued a statement on the safety,permanency, and well-being of unaccompanied immigrant children:

[spoiler title=”Office of Refugee Resettlement Services for Unaccompanied Children”]

Once in the custody of DHS, these children (called Unaccompanied Alien Children, or “UAC”, under U.S. law), are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), for care while their legal case is reviewed by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR, the U.S. immigration court).

The services provided to unaccompanied children by ORR are related to child welfare but are governed by a different set of laws and settlement agreements.


After transfer by DHS to DHHS/ORR custody, unaccompanied children are placed in ORR-funded and state-licensed residential care programs based on an assessment of each child’s needs. The majority are cared for in youth shelters, while a small percentage are placed in staff secure and secure facilities. Due to current increases, the federal government has opened several temporary shelters on U.S. military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California. The youngest children and those with special needs (such as trauma, medical concerns, and victims of human trafficking) may be placed in transitional foster care, group homes, and a few with complex needs and no available family will enter long-term therapeutic foster care (see this manual on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Refugee and Immigrant Services foster care programs for more information).

Over 85% are reunified with family members in U.S. communities while each child’s immigration status is considered (see this FAQ for information about post-release services provided to the most vulnerable minors). Most children are eligible for immigration relief (see the Immigrant Legal Resource Center’s webpage on legal options for children), such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, U or T Visas, or asylum status, among other options.  However, not all children currently have access to legal representation, despite the critical efforts of leading legal providers. For example, the American Bar Association provides crucial pro bono legal assistance to about 1,500 children each year through their South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR).  The majority of children will wait 1 to 2 years before their cases are considered, due to the current workload of the immigration courts.

Sources of information about ORR’s services to unaccompanied children include:

Sources of information about ORR’s services to unaccompanied children include:


Unaccompanied Children: Challenges and Strengths

What challenges do they face once they arrive in the U.S.?
  • Family
  • Readjusting to parents who left when the children were young
  • Fitting into a parent’s new U.S. family (for example, step-parents or new siblings)
  • “Informal kinship care” arrangements, with extended family members or friends who have not previously been the child’s caregiver
  • Moderating overly high expectations of life in the U.S. and reunification with family
  • Adjusting to separation from family and friends in home country
  • Legal

    • Finding an affordable and available immigration attorney
    • Navigating appointments with the immigration court (EOIR) or other officials
    • Understanding immigration authorities’ policies and expectations following release to family members
    • Trusting legal helpers enough to discuss difficult or traumatic experiences in the home country
  • Education

    • Enrolling into school with very limited documentation, such as birth certificates (schools cannot ask for immigration documentation)
    • Understanding U.S. laws regarding compulsory education
    • Adjusting to U.S. educational systems and catching up to grade level
    • Learning English as well as subject content
  • Health and Mental Health

    • Addressing physically and/or emotionally traumatic experiences from the home country, or from the journey to the U.S.
    • Connecting with community services, religious communities, youth organizations, and other sources of support
What strengths do they bring with them?
  • Family and community

    • Mexican and Central Americans are typically family oriented and believe in helping out members of their family and community. They often have a broader notion of “family” that encompasses extended family, “compadres” (similar to Godparents), friends, neighbors and community members.
  • Desire to learn & strong work ethic

    • Mexican and Central American youth may view education as more of a privilege than a right, since school fees in their home countries may have made education prohibitive, leading many children to drop out of school after the primary years, or sometimes before. Many children have worked from a young age, often unpaid, to help their families with agricultural work or animal care, housework or childcare, construction, vending, or other family business.
    • Many Mexicans and Central Americans desire to work in the U.S., even when a secondary reason for their arrival. Many work in physically demanding jobs in the U.S. that can be otherwise difficult to fill (farm labor, meat packing, landscaping, factory work, cleaning, etc.), while others are entrepreneurial and start their own businesses.
  • Responsibility

    • Many older youth may feel a responsibility to help family members who are left behind in the home country, such as sending money to help pay for food, shelter, clothes and education for younger siblings, or to help relatives who are older or infirm. Older youth may not understand child labor laws in the U.S., or they may expect to be able to work and go to school at the same time, since Central American schools are typically only half-day.
  • Faith

    • Many youth come from families with a strong religious faith (typically either Catholic or Protestant / Evangelical). Youth and their families may turn to faith communities in the U.S. as source of emotional and spiritual support.

Volunteer Opportunities

  • Background Checks

    Volunteers who work directly with children must undergo a criminal and child abuse registry background check, and may be asked to submit personal references. These measures are designed to protect children and are required at all times in this country when working with children.

    Serve in your local community

    • A great way to help unaccompanied children is to look for ways to help immigrant children and families that are already in your local community. Some typical means of volunteering include:
      • ESL—Helping immigrants learn English.
      • CASA or GAL—Volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate or Guardian ad litem, for children in abuse and neglect proceedings.
      • Interpretation and translation—Interpreting or translating (Spanish or indigenous languages) for non-profit legal or social service providers serving immigrants (training may be required).
      • Donations—Giving in-kind or financial support to local legal and social service organizations serving immigrants.
  • Visit

    • Border communities: High impact communities, such as South Texas, Arizona and Southern California, may have social service organizations, legal service providers, and / or churches responding to the needs of immigrants who have recently crossed the border.  For example, the Annunciation House in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez provides Border Awareness Experiences and the Florence Project in Arizona provides border tours.
  • Professional services

    • Attorneys
    • Interpreters/Translators
    • Psychologists
    • Social workers
    • Detention visitors
  • Foster parents

    • Foster parents are always needed in child welfare programs. Single and married adults with a special interest in caring for children from different cultures and who are willing to be trained in cultural competency, and those who have lived in different countries and speak other languages, are in great demand.

Advocacy Opportunities

  • Statements and Advocacy for Unaccompanied Children

    • MCWNN statement on the welfare of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children.
    • First Focus provides strong advocacy for children’s rights and has developed a set of recommendations for a comprehensive, inter-agency approach for promoting the best interests of the child. For ongoing advocacy efforts and opportunities, please visit the First Focus Campaign for Children website.
    • The American Bar Association provided a statement to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 25, 2014.
    • The ABA issued a statement to provide background information and to address the current needs of all involved through its Commission on Immigration (COI) on July 18, 2014.
    • The Center on Gender and Refugee Studies issued a statement on June 30, 2014.
  • Best interests of the child

    • The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights advocates for an immigration system that incorporates the “best interests of the child.”
  • Protection

    • The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) promotes a protection approach to children and adults fleeing violence and persecution.
  • Legal services

    • Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) advocates for legal screening and assistance for children involved in immigration proceedings.
  • Family unity

  • Ending detention

    • The International Detention Coalition advocates for a global end to child detention due to a lack of documentation.
  • Federal funding
    • Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), along with other churches and organizations, advocates for government appropriations sufficient to support appropriate programming for immigrant children and families.

Information for Funders

For recommendations to foundations and other funders regarding supporting these children’s best interests, both today and into the future, see the Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) report:  The Surge in Arrivals of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: Recommendations for Philanthropic Response, June 25, 2014