Unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children from Central America are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many have escaped gang violence, sexual abuse or abandonment in their home country. They are extremely vulnerable to rape, assault and exploitation as they travel to the United States. They come to the U.S. seeking protection, safety or to join their families. These children are traveling without a parent or guardian, often alone or with groups of strangers when making the long journey. An increasing number have become victims of traffickers and smugglers.
In 2012, the Women's Refugee Commission warned in a high-profile report, Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America, that violence and unrest in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were causing an upsurge in unaccompanied children travelling to the U.S.
Children told us: "I knew that the trip would be dangerous and that I might die on the road, but if I stayed home, I was certain to die. I had to take the chance."
From 2004 to 2011, the numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. remained steady at an average of 6,800 per year. In 2012, the number jumped to 13,000. The following year, more than 24,000 arrived. This fiscal year, 2014, we're on track to see as many as 90,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at our southern border.
For years, most of the unaccompanied children were older teens, almost always male. Today, almost half the children coming are girls, and they are getting younger. Many of these girls are pregnant, having been raped either in their home country or on their journey to the U.S. It used to be rare for a child younger than 12 to come to the U.S. alone. Now elementary school-aged kids are being picked up and arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol. There have even been reports of pre-school age children being smuggled in. Just recently, a brother and sister aged three and six were taken into custody.
When children are caught by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) crossing the border or on U.S. soil, they are held in Border Patrol facilities. These facilities are generally just a concrete room, with concrete or metal benches and an open toilet and sink in the back. There are no showers, no sleeping accommodations; in many cases they don't even have blankets.All of these children are placed in immigration removal proceedings, and are given a court date on which they have to appear before an immigration court and argue their case for whether they qualify for authorization to stay. If they do not, they are ordered removed.
By law, they must be transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency of Health and Human Services (HHS), within 72 hours. Because of the large numbers, there are now several bottlenecks leading to children staying in CBP custody for more than the legal 72 hours.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was recently tapped to lead the effort and coordinate the U.S. government's response.
HHS has contracts with foster care, shelters, group homes and secure facilities to maintain custody of the children while they locate family or sponsors to take responsibility for them. They are looking for additional space, but it takes time to set up spaces that are appropriate to safely care for children while longer-term options are arranged.
HHS has opened several large emergency facilities – mostly on military bases, including Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and bases in Ventura, California, and Fort Still, Oklahoma.
Children who are not removed (returned to their country of origin) will eventually go to immigration court to have their case heard. The Women's Refugee Commission has developed a short video to explain what happens in immigration court.
For more information, see the "What Happens When I Go To Immigration Court" User Guide. This manual is for child advocates, attorneys and other professionals who are assisting children through proceedings in front of the immigration court. It will help you develop a comprehensive strategy for representation and inform you of issues to consider when working with children of different age levels and cultural backgrounds.
The Women's Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice program has been working to ensure the rights and protection of vulnerable migrants for over 10 years. Our team is located in Washington, D.C. and works closely with the U.S. government, advocating for legislation and policy that protects unaccompanied children's safety and well-being.
The newest UN Committee on the Rights of the Child's report concerns the rights of immigrant children. In partnership with the International Detention Coalition, the Women's Refugee Commission participated in the Committee’s Day of General Discussion in September 2012 to call attention to the plight of children who had been detained. Participants included WRC 2012 Voices of Courage honoree, Rim Tekie. The children's stories, combined with tireless advocacy by our Migrant Rights and Justice team among other organizations, has culminated in the most powerful recommendation the Committee has made to date: calling for all states to cease the detention of children based on their or their parents' immigration status.