Beyond the Sound Bites: Unaccompanied Minors on the US/Mexico Border

In my week back in Colorado, every time that I mention I am moving to Arizona to work with migrant rights, individuals of many life experiences and political beliefs say, “Wow – you have your work cut out for you with all those kids.” They are referring to the 1000 minors recently transferred to a temporary shelter in Nogales, Arizona that lacked adequate installations for their care in a situation that President Obama called “a humanitarian crisis.” This recent development in Nogales is not surprising to people closely following immigration issues because agencies have been overwhelmed by the influx of children for the past two years and have been often housing them in temporary shelters in Texas. Thankfully, this situation is finally coming to national attention. However, most news reports misunderstand or do not report on the nuances in the development of this crisis, and with this blog I hope to fill that gap.

How Unaccompanied Migrant Minors are Received

Before 2002, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children. However, as the US Conference on Catholic Bishops points out, this responsibility was problematic as the INS had a “fundamental conflict of interest in serving as both jailer and caretaker of unaccompanied minors”[1] and in fact the Department of Justice had found their care deficient in several areas.[2] With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, care for these children was transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) because of their experience in working with refugee children.  The ORR was charged with finding guardians and legal representation for these children. After that transition, care of the children dramatically improved in quality.

When an unaccompanied minor is detained by immigration officials, they should be transferred to ORR custody within three days of their detention. They are typically transferred to a Health and Human Services shelter while the ORR looks for family members or other sponsors to receive the children for the duration of their time in the US. ORR licenses and funds care providers in the states that support the children and organizations such as the US Conference on Catholic Bishops provides educational, social, and psychological support to these children.

During the time that they are in ORR’s care, they are still in removal, or deportation, proceedings unless they have an option to regularize their status. Some unaccompanied minors obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status to stay in the US, which requires that they prove that it is not in their best interest to return to their home country and that they cannot be reunited with their parents because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Others obtain asylum or other forms of immigration relief. Although 40% are potentially eligible for a form of relief from deportation, only about 1% ultimately obtain legal immigration status.[3] Those minors who do not have a legal avenue to remain in the US are deported to their home countries.

While the process has not changed dramatically in the past ten years, the numbers of unaccompanied minors migrating has skyrocketed. The previous annual average for children served by the ORR was between 7000 and 8000 but in fiscal year 2012 that increased to 13,625 and then jumped further to 24,668 in 2013. It is possible that 60,000 children will be referred to ORR in the current year.[4] ORR does not have the capacity to deal with these numbers of children, which means that they remain in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) care for longer than the allotted three days, and thus stay in temporary shelters such as those in Nogales, Arizona. Twelve years after a legal change that decided that enforcement mechanisms such as INS, ICE and CBP are not adequate caregivers for these children, these unaccompanied minors find themselves once again in their care for longer periods of time.

Why they come

Accompanied with news reports on the US response is speculation about why the children are coming in increasing numbers. In 2013, the UNHCR conducted 404 interviews with unaccompanied minors in detention in the US in part to answer this question. The study found that 48% of those children were personally affected by violence in their home areas either by organized drug cartels, gangs, or State actors and that 22% of children had suffered abuse at the hands of their caretakers.[5] In both cases, international standards should guarantee some protection for these children, particularly thanks to the Cartagena Declaration that expands protection beyond specific individual cases of refugees. However, with inadequate legal representation and a low success rate for asylum cases from Central America, obtaining that protection is challenging.

A rumor that has emerged in news reports is that more children are coming because they believe the US government will give them legal status. As stated above, only about 1% obtain legal status. However, I do not deny the possibility that the rumor and other misinformation affect some migrants’ journeys. I was on the border in 2011 when Obama announced his prosecutorial discretion plan and even though that plan is entirely irrelevant to recent border crossers, a number of people asked me about the new permissions that Obama was giving out for them to enter the country. Migrants typically do not understand the complexity of the system and cling to any shred of hope that can give them courage and motivation on the journey. Delays in the processing of children in immigration court can make it seem like they have permission to stay in the US with their relatives even though they are in reality simply awaiting a judge’s final decision to deport them. Even civil society organizations are guilty at times of spreading false hope that perhaps some legal options would be open to the migrants. It is impossible to tell how many children are affected by these rumors, but it is important for governments and civil society organizations in countries of origin to clearly communicate the reality of limited options for legal status.

What Now

This post may seem out of place for a blog that often includes more thoughts and reflections than hard facts on immigration. Many people seem to want to jump from the news reports on the shelter in Nogales to the questions of “How should I feel about this situation?” or “Who is in the wrong?” or “What is the solution?” The reality is that it is not a situation that fits well into sound bites or short news articles.

The current difficulty arises in part from efforts to focus on the best interests of the children by protecting them in ORR care. However, funding and infrastructure have not increased quickly enough to meet the changing reality. The temporary shelter in Nogales is not accepting civilian donations. However, the organizations that support medium-term situations for these children, such as the USCCB or many local shelters do accept donations and concerned individuals can direct their resources to those organizations. For families especially compelled by this crisis and the situation of these children, there is an ever-expanding need for foster families to receive them while they are processed. A friend of mine who came unaccompanied to the US and ended up obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status describes his foster family as the first time that he experienced the caring that a family could provide.

Efforts to protect the children cannot be limited to the US. The unaccompanied minors who make it to the border have already suffered a long journey fraught with danger and as a result of violence in their home countries. More must be done to promote the rule of law in Central America and protect youth from violence and gang recruitment to protect their right to not migrate. As individuals, we can support organizations in Central America that specifically work with at-risk kids, such as the Micah Project for urban kids caught up in drug abuse.

This particular issue, and the struggles of immigrants and refugees across the globe, will last much longer than the media attention paid to it. The question is whether we as individuals and a society can commit to long-term and complex solutions.







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7 Responses to Beyond the Sound Bites: Unaccompanied Minors on the US/Mexico Border

  1. Mondaca says:

    I understand that the unaccompanied minors that came from Central America are currently in the Border Patrol detention facility in Nogales, Arizona. We have been helping as much as we can with this situation. I was wondering if you know how we can become a guardian/foster parent for one of the unaccompanied minors. Thanks for all your help.

  2. momknowwhat says:

    If you are Lansing/Flint Area of Michigan and are interested in becoming a Foster Parent to unaccompanied minors here is their website for more information on how to go about getting involved.

  3. jdenari says:

    Joanna, this is really informative and helpful for me, someone who hasn’t been following the issue as closely as I should. The fostering opportunity sounds like a wonderful way for people to tangibly make a difference in this crisis even as the policy problems still exist.

  4. Thank you so much for educating us. it’s so important to let people know how they can help.

  5. Pingback: What should be our Christian response to the Mexican border children?

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