U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) estimates that on average, over 90,000 children are apprehended as they cross the southern U.S. border. After these children are picked up by CBP, they are held in border patrol stations where they often go without food or water for days.
CBP then either returns them to the Mexico borderâ€”often times without ensuring that a responsible adult is there to meet themâ€”or moves them into shelters under the custody of the Division of Unaccompanied Childrenâ€™s Services (DUCS). While in these shelters, they either wait for their immigration cases to be resolved, to be deported or reunited with a family member living in the U.S.
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 complete 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 what constitutes an unaccompanied child and what their corresponding responsibilities are under U.S. law. In addition, the system of how children are cared for and transferred between facilities and holding stations is inefficient and institutional, and as a result, childrenâ€™s basic rights and best interests sometimes suffer.
In 2008, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act was passed in the U.S. Congress. The Detention and Asylum program worked closely with legislators who drafted the TVPRA.
This TVPRA includes a number of significant protections for unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody. These protections include: requiring screening of all children apprehended at the border to determine whether they may be victims of trafficking or fear persecution; creating a pilot repatriation program to ensure that children are returned to their country of origin safely; and allowing them to apply for asylum in a safe system.
The legislation also calls for placement of children in immigration proceedings in the least secure setting that is in their best interest; limits the use of secure (often criminal) facilities; facilitates the timely provision of benefits to children who may be victims of trafficking; and calls on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to ensure to the greatest extent possible that children in proceedings have legal representation.
The Detention and Asylum Program continues to advocate for implementation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, improved conditions at the border and an end to the detention of children.