Since 1997, the Womenâ€™s Refugee Commission has worked to improve conditions of confinement for unaccompanied alien children seeking asylum and other forms of immigration relief in the United States.
Unaccompanied children come to the U.S. from around the world, though primarily from Central and South America. While the majority of unaccompanied children are boys between the ages of 15 and 17, unaccompanied children are of both genders and some are infants. Many of these children come to the United States fleeing war, violence, abuse or natural disaster. They undertake difficult journeys, often across numerous international borders, and often alone. An increasing number of these children become victims of traffickers and smugglers. All of these children, but especially adolescent girls, are highly susceptible to rape and assault along the way.
Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable migrants who cross our borders, and are in need of special protections appropriate for their situation.
A primary focus of the Womenâ€™s Refugee Commissionâ€™s Detention and Asylum program has been to monitor the treatment of these children and to advocate for humane and appropriate policies and practices that safeguard their best interests. In the 2002 report Prison Guard or Parent?: INS Treatment of Unaccompanied Refugee Children, the Womenâ€™s Refugee Commission highlighted the inappropriate conditions in which unaccompanied children were being detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Prior to 2003, children were held in INS custody pending a resolution of their legal case. Conditions of confinement were wholly inappropriate and one-third of these children were held in juvenile detention facilities. Many children were commingled with the delinquent population, subject to handcuffing and shackling, forced to wear prison uniforms, and locked in prison cells.
Many were de facto denied access to legal and social services because they were housed in remote facilities far from available services. In addition, the fact that the same agency was responsible for both care and enforcement created a significant conflict of interest.
The Homeland Security Act (HSA) of 2002 transferred responsibility for the care and custody of unaccompanied children from the INS to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR created the Division of Unaccompanied Childrenâ€™s Services (DUCS) in March 2003. Under the terms of the HSA, the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) retained enforcement and prosecutorial authority related to unaccompanied children, while ORR was given responsibility for all placement decisions and for the provision of childrenâ€™s care.
However, the transfer of custody and division of responsibility remain incomplete. There is no comprehensive oversight of services related to unaccompanied children. The agencies involved often misinterpret the definition of unaccompanied child and their responsibilities under the law. In addition, the system of transfer and care is inefficient, and sometimes institutional, and as a result, childrenâ€™s basic rights and best interests suffer.
Because of these shortcomings, unaccompanied children continue to be some of the most hidden and vulnerable migrants in the U.S. immigration system.
Today, most unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings are in the custody of DUCS. As immigration enforcement has increased, the number of unaccompanied children has also increased. In 2002, INS apprehended and detained approximately 5,000 unaccompanied alien children a year. In 2007, more than 8,300 children were transferred from DHS to DUCS custody. However, this number does not reflect the total number of migrant children in government custody.
Watch "What Happens When I Go to Immigration Court?", a 14-minute video orientating unaccompanied children to the U.S. immigration court.
Read our press release on the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.
Visit our press releases and statements area to find out changes made after the release of our 2007 report on family detention, Locking Up Family Values.