Minor Offenses: The Growing Issue of “Unaccompanied Alien Children” at U.S. Borders

Border Patrol An issue that is now at the forefront of U.S. immigration policy is the influx and apprehension of “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC) at the U.S./Mexico border. The arrival of UAC, or undocumented migrant children unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, poses a unique challenge to the work of U.S. border officials. Often, these children have endured extreme mental and physical hardship to arrive at the border, do not have family or contacts in the U.S., and are in need of protection. Typically, border officials place UAC in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which either arranges care for the children or helps to find their families already living in the U.S. The dramatic increase in UAC immigration, however, has put a strain on the ORR and indicates a need for a more integrative, whole-of-government approach to addressing this issue. 

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics, sectors of the Southwest border have seen as much as a 168% increase in unaccompanied alien children apprehensions in the last year alone. FY14 statistics also reveal that for the first time the majority of the children apprehended by border officials were from Honduras and other Central American countries, rather than Mexico. Additionally, Refugee Council USA reports that UAC tend to be seeking refuge from persecution or other violence in their home countries, especially a growing number of girls who are fleeing gender-based violence in Central America.

In response to this trend, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced in a June 2, 2014 press release the formation of an “inter-agency Unified Coordination Group.” The Group, headed by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, is tasked with ensuring that “Federal agencies are unified in providing relief to the affected children.” Secretary Johnson provided an update to this announcement in a June 12 release, stating that “we have already taken a number of steps to address this issue with the goal to quickly and safely transport the unaccompanied children into the hands of HHS in a safe and humane manner, pursuant to the requirements of the law.” This includes the set-up and use of temporary facilities to provide safe environments for the children, as well as the coordination of medical teams and secure transportation. FEMA, CBP, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), HHS, ORR, and other federal agencies are currently collaborating on these initiatives.

Congress has also responded to this issue; last week the Senate Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education approved a $1.03 billion spending increase to address the needs of UAC in the United States. The decision came as a result of a May 7, 2014 budget hearing in which Mark H. Greenberg, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), described UAC as “[one of] the most vulnerable populations ACF serves.”

In addition to governmental responses, this issue is and continues to be discussed at length within the private sector as well. Check out a few of the reports and resources that resulted from these discussions below:

Article formerly posted at https://www.hsdl.org/blog/newpost/view/minor-offenses-the-growing-issue-of-unaccompanied-alien-children-at-u-s-borders