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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Beginning last year and especially within the last few months, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied children from Central America at the Southwest Border, specifically in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Numbers:

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), last Fiscal Year (October 1, 2012, to October 1, 2013), the U.S. saw 35,209 unaccompanied minors present at the Southwest border, a number that was already on the rise. For Fiscal Year 2014 to date (October 1, 2013 – August 31, 2014), the U.S. has already seen at least 66,127 unaccompanied minors present at the Southwest border and counting. The largest percentage increases came primarily from three Central American Countries: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (known as the “Northern Triangle”). From the fiscal year 2011 to the fiscal year 2013, the number of children from these countries increased by:

  • Honduras: 606% increase;
  • Guatemala: 41% increase; and
  • El Salvador: 328% increase.
Push Factors:

The conditions pushing children to flee Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador include violence, high homicide rates, human trafficking, gangs, and the inability of their home states to protect them. The Northern Triangle Homicide rates are the highest in the world. Specifically, with murder rates of 90.4 per 100,000 people, Honduras is currently the world’s most deadly country. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and gangs dominate much of society, and these countries are unable to protect their citizens. Furthermore, the youth are frequently the target of the violence. Recruitment for the gangs begins in adolescence or even younger, and there are incidents of youth being beaten by police who suspected them of gang membership.

Possible Forms of Relief:

The most common types of relief for which children potentially are eligible after their arrival include:

  • Asylum: Asylum is a form of international protection granted to refugees who are present in the United States. In order to qualify for asylum, a person must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
  • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS): SIJS is a humanitarian form of relief available to minors who enter the child welfare system due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment by one or both parents. To be eligible for SIJS, a child must be under 21, unmarried, and the subject of certain dependency orders issued by a juvenile court.
  • U visas: A U visa is available to victims of certain crimes. To be eligible, the person must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse and have cooperated with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.
  • T visas: T visas are available to individuals who have been victims of a severe form of trafficking. To be eligible, the person must demonstrate that he or she would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual or severe harm if removed from the United States.
How the Crisis is Being Handled:

The majority of unaccompanied children are apprehended when they cross the U.S. Mexico border. Unaccompanied children coming from the Northern Triangle must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). When possible, ORR reunites children with their families in the United States. Immigration court proceedings continue during and after this reunification process. When a child cannot be reunited with his family and is eligible for immigration relief, he will be transferred to foster care. Children who are ineligible for immigration relief remain in ORR custody until their immigration court proceedings are resolved.

Like all immigrants, unaccompanied children do not have the right to appointed counsel. If they do see a judge, unless they can afford attorneys or secure pro bono counsel, they appear in court without legal representation. Additionally, under the Obama administration, the Executive Office for Immigration Review is currently accelerating deportation hearings for these children, which results in children having less time to find counsel, understand their legal options, and prepare their case.
What is needed is for Congress and the Obama administration to take steps to provide critical safeguards to unaccompanied children who all too often navigate the complex U.S. immigration system alone.

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