The Rapid Rise of Unaccompanied Children in the United States

Each year, thousands of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) risk harrowing journeys and travel alone to seek refuge in the United States. These children come from all over the world for many reasons, including to escape persecution in their home countries, to reunify with family members and to look for a better life. In recent years, the U.S. government has had roughly 6,000-8,000 of these children in its care and custody each year. While these children may be as young as infants, most (approximately 70 percent) have been between the ages of 15 and 17. – Women’s Refugee Commission

Among the ongoing conversations around reforming the United States’ immigration system, one often under-discussed area of concern is the plight of unaccompanied children in the U.S. Unaccompanied children – children who arrive to a country alone without a parent or guardian – are among the most vulnerable of all population groups. In the United States, unaccompanied child migrants – or unaccompanied alien children (UAC) as the U.S. government officially refers to this population group – must navigate a complex government system all while remaining highly susceptible to human trafficking and other abuses.  And this often is after children have already experienced a harrowing journey to the United States to begin with. Oren Root, Director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice, describes unaccompanied children:

Unaccompanied immigrant children are an extremely vulnerable population. Whether they enter the United States by themselves, fall prey to smugglers or traffickers, or find themselves in government custody facing deportation after many years of living in the country, they are often forced to navigate the complex immigration enforcement system without a lawyer. The thousands of children who encounter this system annually face a bewildering number of obstacles, as do the service providers whose job it is to assist them.

Over the last couple of years, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States has risen dramatically, particularly from Central America. The majority of children arrive from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. By spring of 2012, U.S. immigration officials had apprehended nearly double the number of children taken into custody in previous years. And by April 2012 the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency charged with the care and custody of unaccompanied children, had a record number of 10,005 in its care.

Unaccompanied Children Apprehensions and Referrals

Note: Apprehensions data are from United State Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and represent the number of children apprehended in the United States. Referrals data are from Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and represent the number of apprehended children referred to ORR for detention.

In the summer of 2012, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) conducted field research exploring potential factors that led to the rapid rise in the number of unaccompanied children arriving to the United States from Central America. Their research also investigated the U.S. government’s response, as well as policies and conditions affecting the children. Through interviews with 151 detained children, government officials in many of the federal agencies that are responding to the influx, country experts, and local service providers, the WRC formulated legislative recommendations and administrative solutions for many aspects of the systems the children encounter.

Children Embark on the Dangerous Journey to the U.S. for Many Reasons

Unaccompanied children may arrive in the United States for a variety of reasons, according to the Migration Policy Institute: poverty; child abuse and neglect; sexual violence; slavery and human trafficking; being forced into drug trafficking; and trying to escape gang violence and recruitment. Many may also embark upon a journey alone to reunify with family who are already in the U.S., and for economic opportunities. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission’s field interviews, the majority of children said that “their flight northward had been necessitated by the dramatic and recent increases in violence and poverty in their home countries.” In particular, “these increasingly desperate conditions reflect the culmination of several longstanding trends in Central America, including rising crime, systematic state corruption and entrenched economic inequality.” Along those lines, children specifically cited the mounting influence of drug cartels and youth gangs as their primary reason for departing their countries. Specifically, the WRC researchers uncovered that not only are children “subject to violent attacks by the gangs…they are also targeted by police, who assume out of hand that all children are gang-affiliated. Girls also face gender-based violence, as rape becomes increasingly a tool of control.” Additionally, children from Guatemala referenced “rising poverty, poor harvests and continuing unemployment as reasons for migrating.” Clearly, many of these problems have arisen from complex, long-standing issues that have yet to meet any easy or short-term solutions.

The Care of Unaccompanied Children in the U.S.

When unaccompanied children are apprehended in the United States, often after a harrowing journey from their home country, and in many cases after having suffered untold abuses, they must then travel through a complex bureaucratic alphabet soup of government agencies. Indeed, the Vera Institute of Justice describes a child’s journey through this “disjointed, labyrinthine system” that includes apprehension by Customs and Border Protection officers (Border Patrol), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) along the U.S. international border, or apprehensions by other law enforcement internally, detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), referral to and detention by various Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters around the country, and Department of Justice Immigration Court proceedings. To illustrate this process, the Vera Institute describes the differing paths through this complex system for two different children:

  • Child 1 was born in Mexico, entered the United States as an infant in January 1994 and was apprehended by DHS in Phoenix sixteen years later in May 2010. He was admitted into ORR custody and placed at a secure facility in Staunton, Virginia in May 2010. The child was then transferred to a staff-secure facility in Houston, Texas in July 2010. Finally, he was returned to Mexico in October 2010 after having grown up in the United States.
  • Child 2 is from El Salvador, entered the United States through Hidalgo, Texas, and was apprehended at the border in February 2009. She was admitted into ORR custody and placed in traditional foster care in El Paso, Texas in February 2009. Subsequently, she was released to a sponsor in New York in June 2009. In August, she was referred to a non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services. The organization matched the child with representation from a law firm in November 2009 and in June 2011, she obtained legal status.

As the second scenario shows, in addition to the various government agencies tasked with the custody and care of unaccompanied children, a variety of non-profit service organizations around the country play an important role. In particular, many of these national and locally-based non-profits actively ensure that children have access to legal counsel and that they and their custodians are aware of the legal process and ramifications of the decisions they’ll likely face in court proceedings. In particular, organizations affiliated with Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, Kids in Need of Defense, the Immigrant Children’s Legal Program from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and the Vera Institute of Justice, among others, provide important legal services to unaccompanied children and their appointed custodians in many cities near U.S. immigration courts around the country. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, unaccompanied children receive a variety of legal orientation programs, including “know your rights” presentations, legal screenings, court preparation and assistance in immigration court, and pro bono legal representation. Some locally based legal orientation programs are also affiliated with the legal orientation program for custodians of unaccompanied children, administered by the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Future of Unaccompanied Children in the U.S. Immigration System

As the legislative debate around immigration reform in 2013 continues, it is important to note that the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June 2013 includes important provisions for unaccompanied children. According to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND),

Provisions in the Senate bill, S. 744, include appointed counsel for unaccompanied children as necessary, and for children returning alone to their home country, support for their safe and sustainable return and reintegration so they do not have to make the life-threatening journey to the U.S. again. Giving the Attorney General the authority to appoint counsel will ensure that unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing persecution, conflict, severe abuse, abandonment, or deep deprivation, can make their case for U.S. protection before an immigration judge. Without counsel, they can be returned to their home countries, where their well-being, or even their lives, may be in danger.

The improved provisions for unaccompanied children under consideration as part of comprehensive immigration reform are indeed a positive direction. But there are many other factors to consider in the case of unaccompanied children, such as their health and well-being, and their mental health. Many unaccompanied children have come from tough situations in their home countries and have experienced traumatic journeys and nightmarish situations en route to and within the United States. While this blog post provided a brief background and overview of the situation of unaccompanied children, why they’re here, and their journey through the complex immigration system, researchers have explored other factors important to understanding the full picture of these kids in an effort to protect one of the most vulnerable populations. And many non-profit workers around the country are engaging with unaccompanied children to help them gain the access to the services and resources they need.  Regardless of the outcome of immigration reform in 2013, the role of local non-profit service organizations in providing care and legal services to unaccompanied children will remain important.

To conclude, the following video trailer for the 2010 feature length documentary Academy Award nominated and Emmy Award winning film, Which Way Home, provides a brief overview of the beginning of the journey for unaccompanied child migrants embarking upon their journey northward to the United States.


Byrne, Olga (2008) “Unaccompanied Children in the United States: A Literature Review.” New York: Vera Institute of Justice.

Byrne, Olga and Elise Miller (2012) “The Flow of Unaccompanied Children through the Immigration System: A Resource for Practitioners, Policy-Makers, and Researchers.” New York: Vera Institute of Justice.

Cammisa, Rebecca (2010) Which Way Home. Feature length documentary film

Costantini, Cristina (2013) “More than 10,000 children were deported to Mexico last year alone.” ABC News, July 30, 2013.

Jones, Jessica and Jennifer Podkul (2012) “Forced from Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America.” New York: Women’s Refugee Commission.

Kennedy, Elizabeth G (2013) “Unnecessary Suffering: Potential Unmet Mental Health Needs of Unaccompanied Alien Children.” Journal of the American Medical Association 167, 4: 319-320.

Levinson, Amanda (2011) “Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: A Growing Phenomenon with Few Easy Solutions.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Migration Policy Institute (2012) “Unaccompanied Minors and Their Journey through the U.S. Immigration System.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Nazario, Sonia (2007) Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother. New York: Random House.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013) “Unaccompanied Children’s Services.” Washington, DC: Office of Refugee Resettlement.

U.S. Department of Justice (2013) “Legal Orientation Program for Custodians of Unaccompanied Alien Children.” Washington, DC: Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (2002) “Prison Guard or Parent?: INS Treatment of Unaccompanied Refugee Children.” New York: Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Women’s Refugee Commission (2013) “Unaccompanied Children.” New York: Women’s Refugee Commission.

The opinions in The Migrationist are exclusively that of the individual contributors and not that of their respective institutions, places of employment, or that of the editors.


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