The problem of unaccompanied alien children coming to the U.S. is a massive, complex, and urgent one. In 2014, roughly 60,000 to 90,000 unaccompanied children crossed the southern border of the United States. That number is up from approximately 21,000 in 2013 and approximately 4,000 in 2012. These numbers do not include the tens of thousands of children who evade apprehension. Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that this year, that number could be as high as 142,000.
The reasons that families decide to send their children off in hopes of finding the promised land vary, but are serious. Many unaccompanied alien children are fleeing violence, particularly in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Gang-related violence and intimidation are especially prevalent in many Central American countries. Another factor weighing in favor of risking the harsh trip north may be the existence of family members in the United States. Additionally, the lack of educational and employment opportunities are a factor driving migration. Ultimately the children who do manage to flee violence in their home countries are often exposed to dangerous and criminal activity along their migration.
Under an agreement between Mexico and the U.S., unaccompanied children from Mexico are reported to the consular and sent back to Mexico under a “voluntary return” order. Children from other countries must go through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) program under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS places these children first with family if any can be located within the U.S. and if not, in various “safe havens,” which are usually shelters, foster homes, or government detention centers.
One of the biggest issues for unaccompanied alien children is that legal representation is not required for their removal proceedings. The likelihood of children receiving legal relief from removal is significantly less without legal representation. Federal statistics reveal that the U.S. has filed deportation cases against more than 62,000 minors between October 2013 and January 2015. Additionally, more than 7,000 immigrant children have been deported without appearing in court since 2013. In many of these cases, the children were not notified of their hearing because the notice arrived late or at the wrong address.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is a federal law that assists certain undocumented immigrant children in obtaining legal permanent residency. Children may be eligible for SIJS if they have been declared dependent by the court, or they have been legally committed to a state agency or department. The court must find that the child is eligible for long-term foster care and that it is not in the child’s best interest to return to the country of origin. The court must make its determination based on abuse, neglect, or abandonment of the child. Asylum is designed to protect vulnerable immigrants and is available to those fleeing persecution in their home country. T-visas are available to victims of human trafficking. U-visas are available to victims of certain other, recognized crimes. These are all available options for unaccompanied alien children; however, without legal representation it is highly unlikely they would be made aware of these options.
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently a program to provide attorneys for these unaccompanied migrant children. The joint project will be between the Justice Department and AmeriCorps. It aims to recruit 100 lawyers and paralegals to provide these children legal representation and make claims for legal status or protection for children who are eligible. However, despite this effort, many unaccompanied alien children will still go unrepresented in the court system.
Ideally, every minor immigrant should be provided with an attorney and/or guardian ad litem. As divisive of an issue as immigration is in the United States, the best interest of the child and protecting the basic human rights of minors should be paramount. However, as it is unlikely that the U.S. government will provide legal representation to all minor immigrants, programs like the AmeriCorps partnership that aim to provide legal services to this underserved population should be praised and encouraged.
Caldwell, Alicia. “Surge in Kids Crossing Border Alone Strains Patrol.” ABC. ABC News Network, 6 June 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/surge-kids-crossing-border-strains-patrol-24017857>.
Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States.” Nov. 2013. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.usccb.org/about/migration-policy/upload/Mission-To-Central-America-FINAL-2.pdf>.
Dinan, Stephen. “Holder Seeks Legal Team for Children on Border.” Washington Times. The Washington Times, 08 June 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/8/holder-seeks-legal-team-for-children-on-border/?page=2>.
Linthicum, Kate. “7,000 immigrant children ordered deported without going to court.” LA Times. The Los Angeles Times. 08 March 2015. Web. 06 April 2015. <http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-children-deported-20150306-story.html#page=1>.
“Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.” Unaccompanied Minors Project. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Web. 12 June 2014. <http://immigrantchildren.org/SIJS/>.
Yu-Hsi Lee, Esther. “At Least 101 Unaccompanied Migrant Children Were Allegedly Abused by Shelter Workers.” Think Progress. Center for American Progress, 28 May 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2014/05/28/3441714/shelter-workers-allegedly-abused-101-unaccompanied-children/>.