Unaccompanied Alien Children – Backgrounder

///Unaccompanied Alien Children – Backgrounder
Unaccompanied Alien Children – Backgrounder2017-03-23T12:49:59+00:00

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Unaccompanied Alien Children in the United States

“Among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group, because as they face the life ahead of them, they are invisible and voiceless: their precarious situation deprives them of documentation, hiding them from the world’s eyes; the absence of adults to accompany them prevents their voices from being raised and heard.”

–Pope Francis, 2017 World Day of Migrants and Refugees Message, September 8, 2016

Who Qualifies as an Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC)?

Unaccompanied alien children are defined as children who cross our borders and (1) have no lawful immigration status in the United States, (2) have not attained 18 years of age, and (3) have no parent or legal guardian in the United States or no parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide for their care and physical custody.[i] While many UAC are eventually reunited with family in the United States, they are considered to be unaccompanied if a parent or legal guardian is not immediately available to provide for their care.

How Many UAC are Arriving?[ii]

What are the Root Causes of their Flight?

Violence: While poverty and the desire to reunify with family to attain security are ongoing motivations to migrate, violence in the home and at the community and state level is a primary factor forcing children to flee El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (the Northern Triangle of Central America).

Instability: Many children are left vulnerable and unprotected as local violence exacerbates the lack of economic and educational opportunities, leading to stress on the family unit and family breakdown.

Lack of State Protection: The Northern Triangle governments fail to adequately protect children due to corrupt or inadequate law enforcement, legal systems and limited social welfare and child protection infrastructure.[v]

Ana’s Story

Ana is a 16-year-old girl from Honduras who came to the United States when she was 15 years old and for whom USCCB provided family reunification services. Ana was abandoned by her father and suffered physical abuse by an uncle while she was living with her grandparents in Honduras. She was raped, and soon after she fled the country seeking safety in the United States. During her journey, she was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel in Mexico, during which time she was forced into prostitution and also forced to witness the decapitation of ten children. She is currently living with her mother and working with an attorney to apply for immigration relief.

What Happens Once UAC Arrive in the United States?[vi]

Apprehension, Screening, and Transfer: UAC are typically apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), most often at the U.S. / Mexico border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Generally, DHS is required to notify and transfer custody of the unaccompanied child to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). UAC are also placed in removal proceedings and issued a “Notice to Appear” in immigration court.

  • UAC from Mexico and Canada: CBP is not required to automatically refer Mexican and Canadian UAC to ORR as some may be permitted to voluntarily withdraw their applications for admission to the U.S. and return to their countries of origin. However, the law does require CBP to screen UAC for fear of return and trafficking, and CBP must transfer those deemed at-risk to ORR’s care.[vii]

ORR Care and Custody: ORR must provide UAC in its custody with food, shelter, and clothing as well as educational, medical, mental health, and case management services.

Family Reunification: UAC may reunify with family members and other caregivers in the United States (“sponsors”) while they undergo immigration proceedings. Sponsors include parents, legal guardians, grandparents, adult siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and unrelated adults (i.e., family friends). ORR identifies and screens sponsors to confirm their identity and establish that they will be able to provide for the safety and well-being of the UAC.  ORR also provides information to sponsors to help ensure that UAC attend their immigration proceedings.

  • Home Studies and Post-Release Services: For a limited number of UAC, ORR funds home studies and post-release services by social services providers to help ensure children are released into safe placements and to facilitate family and community integration after reunification. These practices promote child safety and can help reduce the need for involvement with the public child welfare system post-release.

Are UAC Able to Access Protection and Legal Relief?

Some Forms of Relief for UAC: Some of the children qualify for asylum protection, some for visas as abused, abandoned, and neglected children (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status), and others as victims of trafficking (T nonimmigrant status) or of serious crimes (U nonimmigrant status).

Rate of Representation: Non-detained immigrants (such as UAC) who have counsel are five times more likely than those without legal representation to obtain immigration relief.[viii] Nevertheless, UAC are not entitled to court-appointed counsel and often have to navigate the complex legal system alone. As of October 31, 2014, only 32% of unaccompanied children had representation in cases pending in immigration court.[ix]

How Can I Help?

Voice your opposition to your local Representative and Senators to legislative proposals that would roll back humane protections for UAC. You can do this easily by participating in our Action Alerts.

[i] Homeland Security Act of 2002, 6 U.S.C. § 279(g)(2) (2002).

[ii] U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016, https://www.cbp.gov/ newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/ fy-2016 (last visited Oct. 20, 2016).

[iii] See Children on the Run – Stories, UNHCR (April 1, 2016), http:// www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2016/4/56fe41a3125/children-on-the-run-stories.html.


[v] Danielle Renwick, Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS (Jan. 19, 2016), http://www.cfr.org/transnational-crime/ central-americas-violent-northern-triangle/p37286.

[vi] The foundational legal framework governing the custody and care of UAC is set forth in the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997 (Flores v. Reno, Case No. CV 85-4544-RJK (C.D. CA, 1997)), The Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. § 279), and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 (8 U.S.C. § 1232)

[vii] TVPRA 2008, 8 U.S.C. § 1232(a)(2).

[viii] American Immigration Counsel, Access to Counsel in Immigration Court 3 (2016).

[ix] TRAC, Representation for Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Court (Oct. 31, 2014), http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/371/.


Last Updated: 1/24/17