The rapid increase in the number of children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border this year has generated a great deal of attention and controversy. In particular, attention has been focused on children that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) classifies as “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC). In fiscal year (FY) 2013, 82 percent of the 47,000 apprehended children aged zero to 17 fell into this category. The number of UAC apprehended doubled between FY 2009 and FY 2013 and is on pace to nearly double again by the end of FY 2014.
As DHS applies it, the term “unaccompanied” does not describe a child’s travel conditions, but the way the child is processed. In order for an apprehended child not to be classified as unaccompanied, a parent or guardian must prove their relationship to the child. DHS used to extend custody to close family members like adult siblings and grandparents, but shifted to a stricter interpretation in May 2006. Even if the parent/guardian relationship is proven, children who are detained separately from their parents are still classified as unaccompanied. For example, parents who are charged as criminal aliens must be housed in detention facilities where children cannot legally be placed, and a lack of bed space can prevent parents and children from being housed in the same facility. Publicly available data do not reveal how many children are separated from parents, guardians, or family members during DHS processing.
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