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Immigration 101: Top 10 Facts About Unaccompanied Migrant Children

  1. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 defines the term “unaccompanied alien child” (often abbreviated “UAC”) to mean a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States, has not attained 18 years of age, and has no parent or legal guardian in the United States or available to provide care.

  2. Two statutes and a legal settlement directly affect U.S. policy on the treatment and administrative processing of UACs: The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997.The 2008 TVPRA codified the process for the treatment of all unaccompanied migrant children arriving to the United States.

  3. The TVPRA set forth special rules for UAC from Mexico and Canada, requiring that they be screened for evidence of human trafficking within 48 hours of apprehension. It mandated that unaccompanied children determined not to be human trafficking victims or not to have a fear of returning to their home country or country of last habitual residence could be returned to their countries without additional penalties. UAC from other countries must be referred to immigration courts for hearing their claims to stay in the country.

  4. Under TVPRA, the Department of Homeland Security must transfer unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of apprehension and they are guaranteed an immigration court hearing.

  5. Agencies in DHS and HHS share responsibility for the processing, treatment, and placement of unaccompanied children. DHS’s Customs and Border Protection apprehends UACs encountered at the border. Immigration and Customs Enforcement handles custody transfer and repatriation responsibilities, apprehends UACs in the interior of the country, and represents the government in removal proceedings. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) coordinates and implements the care and placement of UACs in shelters and with adult sponsors in the United States.

  6. ORR has policies and procedures in place to ensure the care and safety of unaccompanied children who are apprehended without a parent or legal guardian. These policies require the timely release of children to qualified parents, guardians, relatives, or other adults in the United States, referred to as “sponsors.” If a parent or guardian cannot be identified or is unable to be a sponsor, ORR can provide a continuum of care for unaccompanied children in either a shelter facility, foster care or group home, staff-secure or secure care facility, a residential treatment center, or special needs care facility. The majority of unaccompanied children are cared for through a network of state licensed ORR-funded care providers, most of which are located close to areas where immigration officials apprehend large numbers of migrants.

  7. In 2014, the Obama administration attempted to stem and deter migration at the southern border by detaining more migrant families, collaborating with Mexico to increase their border enforcement, and launching a public awareness campaign in Central America to counter rumors that migrants would be allowed to stay in the United States. The Trump administration took a much stricter approach to the increasing number of arrivals, and in 2018 announced the zero-tolerance policy, where unauthorized immigrant parents traveling with their children were being criminally prosecuted and separated from their children. The policy was ended after public outcry later that year, but thousands of families were separated under the policy and many remained apart. In 2021, the Biden administration launched an interagency task force with the stated goal of reunifying separated families.

  8. Economic opportunity is a significant driver of immigration from Central America. A Government Accountability Office report reviewing migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras noted all three countries face significant challenges in education, housing, and healthcare. According to World Bank data, approximately 60% of Hondurans, 60% of Guatemalans, and 20% of Salvadorans live below the poverty line.

  9. Crime is also a significant push factor for migrants including unaccompanied children and youth. While crime is a problem in all three countries, it is worse in El Salvador and Honduras. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that El Salvador was the deadliest nation in the Western Hemisphere in 2015, while Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world since 2010.

  10. In fiscal year 2013, the total number of unaccompanied children that were encountered at the border was 38,759. However, following the Central American migration crisis of 2014, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border drastically increased. In FY2014 alone, 68,541 were encountered at the border. While the number of arriving children decreased slightly in the following years, it peaked again in FY2019, with 76,020 unaccompanied children arriving at the border. In FY2020, the total number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border had dropped to 30,557.

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