Does the United States want to be a nation that turns away unaccompanied children at the border? Unaccompanied Children in Need at the Border

    Jun 18, 2014

    A staggering number of children have been apprehended crossing the U.S./Mexico border without parents in recent months. According to the Obama administration, 47,017 children traveling without parents have been caught crossing the border since October 1, 2013, a 92% increase over the same period in 2013.[1] The United States is on track to receive 60,000 unaccompanied children this year.[2] This is in addition to the estimated 1 million undocumented children already present in the United States.[3]   The majority of these newly arrived children are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.[4] Beyond the startling increase, immigration authorities are reporting a shift in demographics of children making the treacherous journey to the United States towards more girls and youth under the age of 13 years old.[5] According to the New York Times, some are “barely old enough to walk.”[6]

    Tens of thousands of immigrant children walking across the U.S./Mexico border without their parents raises complex questions, further exacerbates the humanitarian crises occurring at the U.S./Mexico border, and highlights the need for immigration reform.

    Why the sudden increase in children crossing the border?

    These children are likely coming due to a combination of complex push and pull factors, but experts suspect the push factors from their home countries are the strongest.[7] For many years, Central American youth have been fleeing gang violence, and poverty in their home countries.[8] These driving push factors have only become worse over recent months.[9] Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes the phenomenon,

    “These children defy common perceptions of migration in this hemisphere . . .They are akin to refugees in Africa fleeing civil wars. They are literally fleeing for their lives.”[10]

    On the pull side, some children may be driven to come to the United States to reunite with a parent or family who is already here. In some cases these family members may have finally saved the money to have their child brought to the United States or the child could have initiated the journey on his or her own. Another push/pull factor is the paucity of educational opportunities in the children’s home country in comparison with the perception the educational opportunities in the United States.[11]

    Some politicians are claiming that Obama’s “loose policies” on immigration are fueling the surge of children, but this claim can be debunked.[12] Obama’s administration has deported nearly two million immigrants, more people than any prior administration, causing some label him the “deporter in chief.”[13] Furthermore, far from becoming more lax, over the course of the Obama administration, the border has continued to become increasingly militarized and harder cross. While Obama did create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, it only benefits youth who have been in the United States since 2007 (along with additional requirements). As such, DACA cannot be used as a scapegoat to explain this recent surge in children at crossing the border.

    As summarized by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the migration committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “This is a humanitarian crisis born out of the growing violence in Central America.”[14]

    How are U.S. immigration authorities handling the surge in unaccompanied children at the border?

    When unaccompanied children are caught by immigration authorities, they are taken into immigration custody and placed in deportation (technically “removal”) proceedings. Children without their parents are handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is supposed to have a child-welfare approach to handling these children.[15] This means the agency is to act in the best interests of the child. ORR is tasked with finding the child’s parents or relatives and determining whether the home where these family members reside is safe for the children. If possible, ORR reunifies the child with his or her family member and then the child is expected to attend court to determine whether he or she qualify for any legal basis to stay in the United States. Children for whom no family member can be located are left in federal foster care until their immigration case is over.

    The recent surge in children without parents is causing a detention crisis as the border immigration authorities are simply not equipped to handle the sheer the number of children being apprehended. A child welfare approach demands housing these children in the least restrictive setting as possible, ideally with family members. Grappling with how to house, feed, and provide medical care and education to these children has caused the government to set up shelters at military bases in the area and ship children to other areas of the country. Advocates fear that the conditions at these military facilities are not proper to care for children and also that the shelters will become permanent detention centers, adding to the growing incarceration of immigrants in the United States.

    What legal options do these unaccompanied children have in the United States?

    The current legal relief options are insufficient to address the needs of these children. Some of these children may have viable asylum claims based on the danger that they are fleeing in the home countries. Others may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a pathway to lawful permanent residence for certain youth whose reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to abuse, abandonment, neglect or similar basis. However, these options will only address a fraction of these youth.

    I just attended a seminar celebrating the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic’s (HIRC) 30th Anniversary and I am both inspired and galvanized after listening to some legends in the field of immigration law speak about this crisis. In considering solutions, at the HIRC conference today, Mario Russell, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Services Division for Catholic Charities Community Services in New York, stated “[i]t is critical for these children that we think about this situation as beyond the margins.” He suggested considering at least temporary humanitarian protections such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and other humanitarian mechanisms.

    ***

    While the numbers of children at the border are unprecedented and many angles of the crisis raise more questions than answers, what is clear is that these children have completed harrowing journeys on foot, buses, trains, across deserts and rivers across thousands of miles. Many are fleeing violence and trauma in their home countries only to encounter more along their migration to the United States.   How we as a country – as individuals, advocates, and government- receive and respond to the arrival of these vulnerable child refugees at the border will say a lot about the type of country we are.

    [1] New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0;

    [2] Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538

    [3] The Nation of Immigrants, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, January 29, 2013, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/01/29/a-nation-of-immigrants/

    [4]New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0; Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538

    [5]New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0

    [6] Id.

    [7]New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0; Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538

    [8]Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538

    [9]New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0;

    [10]Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538

    [11] Id.

    [12]Flow of Unaccompanied Minors Tests U.S. Immigration Agencies, The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman and Miriam Jordan, January 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579351143226055538; New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0;

    [13] Please note the numbers of deportations under the Obama administration are actually difficult to compare historically because of changes in the terminology, types and technical process of returns, deportations, and removals.  See Lies, damned lies, and Obama’s deportation statistics, The Washington Post, Anna Law, April 21, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/21/lies-damned-lies-and-obamas-deportation-statistics/

    [14]New U.S. Effort to Aid Unaccompanied Child Migrants, The New York Times, Julia Preston, June 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/us/politics/new-us-effort-to-aid-unaccompanied-child-migrants.html?_r=0;

    [15] http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ucs/about