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  • What happens when unaccompanied children arrive at the U.S. border?

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    The vast majority of arrivals are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    From 2004 to 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. remained steady at an average of 6,000 – 7,000 per year.

    In 2012, the number jumped to 13,000 unaccompanied children. In 2013, more than 24,000 arrived. This fiscal year, 2014, we're on track to see 90,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at our southern border.

    Not only have the numbers changed, but who is coming is different too. For years it was much more common to see older teens, almost always male.

    Today, almost half the children coming are girls and they are getting younger, with an average age now of 14 or younger. Many of these girls are pregnant, having been raped either in their home country or on their journey to the U.S.

    The journey is incredibly dangerous and these children are well aware of this. Children we interviewed in 2012 told us, "I knew that the trip would be dangerous and that I might die on the road, but if I stayed home, I was certain to die. I had to take the chance."

    Children arrive at the border hungry, thirsty, traumatized and disoriented.

    What happens when these children arrive at the border?

    First, border enforcement has never been more stringent.

    These children are being apprehended, or turn themselves in. They are all processed through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

    Children who are not from Mexico and are determined to be unaccompanied—that is to say, they do not have authorization to entry the country, they are under 18 and they are not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian—must be transferred, by law, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a department of Health and Human Services (HHS), within 72 hours.

    All of these children are placed in immigration removal proceedings, and are given a court date on which they have to appear before an immigration court and argue their case for whether they qualify for authorization to stay. If they do not, they are ordered removed.

    Because of the large numbers, there are now several bottlenecks leading to children staying in CBP custody for more than the legal 72 hours.

    DHS has had to add staffing to process all the cases. In addition, they cannot transfer the children to HHS until HHS has space for them.
    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was recently tapped to lead the effort and coordinate the U.S. government's response. This was an appropriate first step in an emergency situation, but others with expertise in working with displaced children should also be brought in to ensure appropriate care for these vulnerable kids.

    Border patrol facilities were not designed for long-term detention. Everyone agrees that they are not appropriate for children. They are generally just a concrete room, with concrete or metal benches and an open toilet and sink in the back. There are no showers, no sleeping accommodations; in many cases they don't even have blankets. In this current crisis, children are staying in these facilities for days and even weeks with no shower, no change of clothes, no recreation and only basic food that has to be brought in or served cold.

    DHS has every interest in moving these children out of the Border Patrol stations as quickly as possible. In addition to not being appropriate for children or long-term custody, they are overcrowded. Most of the apprehensions are occurring in the Brownsville, Harlingen area. DHS is transferring adults to other stations wherever possible and they are using a processing center in Nogales to house the children while they process them and wait for HHS to find space.

    HHS has contracts with foster care, shelters, group homes and secure facilities to maintain custody of the children while they locate family or sponsors to take responsibility for them. They are looking for additional space, but it takes time to set up spaces that are appropriate to safely care for children while longer-term options are arranged.

    HHS has opened several large emergency facilities – mostly on military bases. In addition to Lackland, they have opened facilities in Ventura, California, and in Oklahoma (Fort Still), and are working on others. They are also expanding capacity at existing shelters and adding new shelter facilities. We have not been inside these emergency facilities recently, but we did have the opportunity to visit Lackland when HHS used it for the first surge in 2012. It was then set up as you would imagine a hurricane emergency shelter, with cots lined up in a big room. This time they are using barracks which may be a better layout.

    Safety and protection are always a concern in institutional settings. ORR facilities are generally a safe and secure place for children while they await a more stable option, but there have been problems in the past, and with the current circumstances we have to be extra cautious and extra vigilant in ensuring safety and due process. This is a very vulnerable group of children and when they are in DHS or HHS custody they have very little if any access to the outside world. It is important to continue to ensure that new and existing facilities are complying with basic standards, and that children's best interest are being considered. It is also essential that there is adequate oversight of these facilities. This is more important than ever for any large institutional facilities and in this case, where the agency is under so much pressure to find space wherever they can.

    It is important to note that there has been no significant change in policy regarding unaccompanied children since they were transferred to the custody of HHS in 2003. There has been some talk about how Mexican children are treated differently because of the TVPRA – or trafficking Victims Protection Act. This is actually not related at all to the increase. Before TVPRA, Mexican children were generally turned back at the border and not processed or transferred to ORR. What the TVPRA did was add a screening provision for Mexican children, requiring that they be screened to determine whether they are at risk of trafficking. We have not however, seen a significant increase in the number of Mexican children arriving or being transferred to ORR in recent years.

    Read a fact sheet on myths and facts about unaccompaned children.

    For more information, contact:

    Michelle Brané, Director, Migrant Rights and Justice, Women's Refugee Commission
    This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | 646/717-7191

    June 2014