Border crisis 101: eight things to know about unaccompanied children

A great brief run-through of some of the questions about the issue. Forward it around. More to come.  

Christian Science Monitor
JULY 10, 2014
Linda Feldmann, Staff writer July 10, 2014

Since last October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the US-Mexico border illegally – a surge that has taxed US resources. The White House says “most” of the children, many from Central America, will be deported. But is that realistic? What kind of rights do these children have?

With the help of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, here’s a look at today’s immigration crisis and how it compares to the recent past.

1. What is an “unaccompanied alien child”?
That’s a term used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to categorize many of the children who have flooded across the southern US border since last October. Many of them are in fact not alone, and some are even accompanied by a parent, but are classified as “unaccompanied alien children,” because of how they are processed.

To avoid classification as “unaccompanied,” a child must prove that any accompanying adult is either a parent or guardian. DHS used to extend custody to close family members, like grandparents and adult siblings, but opted for a stricter definition in 2006. Even if an accompanying adult is confirmed to be a parent or guardian, that adult may be placed in detention as a criminal alien, separate from the child, and so the child becomes “unaccompanied.”

Also, a lack of bed space may force a child’s adult companion to be housed in separate facilities, rendering the child “unaccompanied.”

2. What are the trends with unaccompanied children?
In fiscal year 2013 – Oct. 1, 2012 to Sept. 30, 2013 – 82 percent of the 47,000 children age 17 and under apprehended on the border were unaccompanied. Between FY 2009 and FY 2013, the number of apprehended unaccompanied children doubled. That number is on track to double again by the end of FY 2014.

The absolute number of children being apprehended at the border is similar to that of the early-to-mid-2000s, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. But as a percentage of all apprehensions, the number has been rising. That figure ranged from 8 to 10 percent before the recession, but went up to 11 percent in FY 2013.

3. Where are these children from, and where are they going on the border?
An unprecedented number are now from Central America. In FY 2004, 83 percent were Mexican. So far in FY 2014, just 24 percent were from Mexico, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The biggest flood of unaccompanied children has occurred in the Rio Grande,Texas, border sector. Between FY 2013 and 2014, about 93 percent of the increase in apprehensions has taken place there.

4. Why does country of origin matter?
Mexican children can usually be deported easily. But children from Central America have additional rights, under a 2008 law during the Bush Administration, aimed at curbing child trafficking. The law grants children from countries that don’t border on the US (meaning Canada and Mexico), the right to formal removal hearings.

The Department of Health and Human Services takes custody of these children and places some with sponsors. The number of migrant children in government custody has more than tripled between FY 2011 and FY 2013. That number is on pace to double again in FY 2014, overwhelming US facilities.

5. How old are these children, and how many get “relief” in the US?
In FY 2013, 24 percent were 14 or younger when they arrived. That’s up from the 10 to 15 percent who were 14 or younger in FY 2007 and '08.

In 2011, 42 percent of unaccompanied children in government custody were found “potentially eligible for relief” to remain in the US legally, according to a study by HHS’s Legal Access Project in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice.

6. What kind of legal status can these children receive in the US?
Of 42 percent found eligible for relief in 2011, more than half were categorized under Special Immigrant Juveniles Status, which is aimed at foreign children in the US who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. Children who get a green card through this program can live and work permanently in the United States, but they can never petition for a green card for their parents. They also cannot petition for a green card for any siblings until they become a US citizen.
Children can also stay in the US if they can show that they may be persecuted or tortured if they return home. One such form of relief is asylum, as defined under international refugee conventions. Another protection is called “withholding,” which is for people not eligible for asylum, but who still may be subject to harm in their home country.
Other protections exist for children who are victims of human trafficking or criminal activity.

7. What percentage of children fail to appear in court?
Specific figures for unaccompanied children are unavailable, according to the Legal Access Project. But children who are placed with a sponsor and leave government custody have more opportunity to skip their court appearance. Statistics from the Executive Office of Immigration Review Show that 20 to 30 percent of all immigrants failed to appear in court between 2008 and 2012.
Juan Osuna, director of the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review, told a Senate panel on Wednesday that "46 percent of juveniles actually don't show up before their immigration hearings."

8. What’s behind the flood of unaccompanied children?
Analysts cite many factors:

  1. Increasing drug and gang violence in the “sending countries.” The three major “sending” countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) are among the five most violent countries of the world (Honduras is the most violent). 
  2. The Obama administration’s policy of not deporting young undocumented people who arrived as children (see no. 3, below).
  3. False rumors about that policy spread by human traffickers to desperate, often illiterate, families, that all children, whether accompanied or not, would be given citizenship if they made it to the border. (In fact, both the law and the executive order applied only to children brought here accompanied by a parent or guardian, and only applied to children brought here before 2007.)
  4. The 2008 Bush-era law saying that children coming from countries other than Mexico or Canada had to go through a special (and lengthy) court process before being deported or assimilated. That backlogged the process when the surge began. 
  5. Family reunification. Many of the children already had a family member who had gone ahead of them. The parents in the sending countries frequently hoped that the settled relative could take them in and save them from the violence at home.
  6. The (again, falsely promoted) prospect (very unlikely in reality) that Congress would eventually legislate a path to citizenship for those who made it to the country illegally.