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Child Deportations: How Many Minors Does the U.S. Actually Send Home?

To learn more about the child migration crisis, please see our by-the-numbers issue brief, read our primer on current law, and attend our July 30 event featuring Sec. Michael Chertoff of the Immigration Task Force.

In the ongoing dialogue over the current child migration crisis, attention has recently focused on what happens to children after they are apprehended at the border. Several outlets have reported the number of children deported in recent years based on statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While an increasing number of children apprehended are under age 14,1 the Pew Research Center recently released data that showed that 84 percent of children apprehended so far in 2014 were teenagers.2 Because of long backlogs in the immigration court system, some of these teenagers will turn 18 before their removal. In order to get a clearer picture of how many apprehended minors are ultimately removed, these “age-out” cases should be included.

Based on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) dataset from ICE, which was obtained by The New York Times,3 Table 1 shows the number of minors removed in the past five fiscal years and estimates the number of children who were deported after turning 18. The number of children deported after their 18th birthday was estimated by counting (1) the number of 18-year-olds who were deported one or more fiscal years after their latest apprehension and (2) the number of 19-year olds deported two or more fiscal years after their latest apprehension.4

According to ICE data, between FY 2009 and FY 2013, about 4,600 children from Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras) were removed; additionally, about 1,700 18-year olds were removed one or more fiscal years after their apprehension, and about 200 19-year olds were removed two or more fiscal years later, indicating they were likely to have been minors at the time of their apprehension. In total, these data suggest that the United States removed about 6,500 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras who were apprehended as children. Overall, approximately 21,000 individuals apprehended as children were removed in the past five fiscal years.

Table 1. Removals of individuals apprehended as children, FY 2009-FY 2013.

Immigration child migrants removals
Source: Calculated from ICE FOIA dataset obtained from The New York Times.

What about children who have not been removed? Data from the Transactional Records Clearinghouse (TRAC) suggest that most of these children are still awaiting their deportation hearing. As of June 2014, about 61 percent of the immigration court cases filed for Northern Triangle juveniles since FY 2009 were still pending, with much higher rates for recent years (Table 2, Figure 1). Another 24 percent have been ordered removed or granted a voluntary departure, and about 15 percent have been allowed to stay in the United States.

Table 2. Immigration court outcomes for Northern Triangle juveniles, FY 2009-FY 2014.

Source: TRAC
* About 99 percent of cases decided in absentia end in a removal order.

Figure 1. Immigration court outcomes for Northern Triangle juveniles, FY 2009-FY 2014.

Immigration court outcomes

In absolute terms, these data show that between October 2009 and June 2014, a total of about 15,000 juvenile cases from the Northern Triangle resulted in a removal or voluntary departure order. By comparison, only about 6,500 juveniles from those countries were removed between October 2009 and September 2013, a difference of about 8,500. Several possibilities may explain this gap, including:

  • Data comparability. The case outcome data are more recent than the deportation data. The deportation data do not include any deportations that took place in FY 2014. Further, the number of children deported after turning 18 is an estimate, not a precise count.
  • In absentia orders. Children ordered removed in absentia may not have been located or apprehended by ICE to enforce the removal order. About 8,000 Northern Triangle juveniles have had their cases decided in absentia since FY 2009 (Table 2), and about 99 percent of these cases ended with removal orders.
  • Processing removals. Some children who have been ordered removed may not actually have been removed yet. Once a removal is ordered, the U.S. government must coordinate with the receiving country to obtain any missing travel documents, arrange transportation, and determine who will take custody of the child upon their return.
  • Appeals. It is unclear whether TRAC’s count of removal orders includes orders that have been or could be appealed.

More detailed data from the Department of Homeland Security could paint a clearer picture of case outcomes for apprehended children, including the subgroup of those children who are classified as unaccompanied. Based on available data, it appears that about 6,500 children from the Northern Triangle countries have been removed since FY 2009, and that most of the remainder are still awaiting their removal hearing.

1 As reported in our issue brief, “Child Migration by the Numbers,” 24 percent of children in government custody were under 14 in 2013. 

2 Pew Research Center, “Children 12 and under are fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors at U.S. border,” July 22, 2014, available here.

3 The original story based on the dataset, “More Deportations Follow Minor Crimes, Records Show,” was published in April 2014 is available here.

4 Because the data set included only birth years, not birth dates, the estimates under-count one key group and over-count another. The totals omit 17-year-olds who turned 18 during the same fiscal year they are apprehended, resulting in an under-count. However, some of the 18-year-olds who were apprehended during the previous fiscal year were likely 18 at the time of apprehension, resulting in an over-count. Given the data’s limitations, it is reasonable to assume that these groups are approximately the same size. While a dataset with apprehended migrants’ birth dates would enable a more precise estimate, such data does not seem to be publicly available.

5 TRAC, “Juveniles — Immigration Court Deportation Proceedings,” accessed July 17, 2014, available here.

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