What happens when migrant children arrive at the US border, with or without their parents

A child from Central America sits at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint in Tijuana, Mexico on May 1, 2018.

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A child from Central America sits at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint in Tijuana, Mexico on May 1, 2018.
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Edgard Garrido/Reuters

  • Reports President Donald Trump’s administration had “lost” 1,500 migrant children went viral this weekend, resurfacing a debate on US immigration policies for children.
  • But that claim is misguided, and is being confused with a separate Trump administration policy to separate migrant children from their parents.
  • Here’s what actually happens when migrant children arrive at the US border, with or without their parents.

The Trump administration on Tuesday blasted “false and misleading” claims that the federal government had “lost” 1,475 migrant children – a narrative that gained steam unexpectedly over the weekend, after social-media users circulated a month-old story about federal officials’ failed attempts to contact the children’s families by phone.

“These children are not ‘lost’; their sponsors – who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them – simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made,” Eric Hargen, the Health and Human Services deputy secretary, said in a statement.

The controversy stemmed from testimony a Trump administration official gave on April 26 regarding the whereabouts of thousands of unaccompanied children who had arrived at the US border and were then placed with sponsors.

Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the US Administration for Children and Families, testified that the Office of Refugee Resettlement had tried to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors from October to December 2017 and couldn’t get in touch with 1,475 of those children, leading to reports they had been “lost.”

But news of the unaccompanied children coincided with separate news of the a recently unveiled “zero tolerance policy” from the Trump administration. The misunderstanding of the process the government has for unaccompanied minors turned this communication gap into a scandal.

Here’s what actually happens when migrant children arrive at the US border hoping to enter the country:


Who are these children, and how many of them are there?

When a child arrives at the US border and is not accompanied by a parent or guardian, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) considers them an “unaccompanied alien child.”

Since 2014, more than 230,000 unaccompanied minors have come to the US, according to CBP data.

In 2017, the majority of these children were between 15 to 18 years old, and 94% were referred to the refugee-resettlement office after fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Only 3% were from Mexico.

A fact sheet from the US Administration for Children and Families describes the wide variety of reasons for children to flee their homes for the US, including re-joining family, escaping violence or abuse, or finding work.

These children are “especially vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse” because of their ages and situations, making a proper reception and placement process critical to their survival and well-being in the US.


What rights do unaccompanied minors have in the US, and how are they protected under the law?

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A girl waits with visitors in the lobby of an immigration detention center in Adelanto, California.
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Reuters

International and domestic law requires the US to ensure safe arrival and processing of refugees and asylum-seekers once they have escaped persecution or violence and reached the US. Some of the same rules apply to these unaccompanied minors.

According to a 2014 UN Refugee Agency report on 404 children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, 58 percent had to flee “because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”

Because of the threats the majority of these children were facing, they are not turned away at the border – instead, they are permitted to enter the US while their asylum cases are processed by the court system, though many are ultimately expected not to win their cases.

During that time, the appropriate case managers begin a process that protects each child’s chance to receive educational, health, and legal services.


What is the government’s procedure for receiving and processing unaccompanied children?

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A graphic from the Department of Homeland Security illustrates the movement of unaccompanied minors across government offices.
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dhs.gov

When unaccompanied minors arrive at the US border, the border protection office detains them, then passes them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours.

The average stay for a child in a shelter has been 56 days in 2018, during which time the child is assigned a case worker who will search for and approve an adult, American sponsor.

The refugee-resettlement office looks to place children in a protective environment while they are being processed and generally turns to a network of state-licensed, agency-funded care providers.


Where do the unaccompanied children go?

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Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America line up to receive food near the San Ysidro checkpoint in Tijuana, Mexico on April 30, 2018.
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REUTERS

Once they are in custody, the refugee-resettlement office seeks to place the unaccompanied children in a fit home as quickly as possible – preferably with an immediate relative or guardian, but otherwise with a legal adult the office would investigate and approve.

Wagner said that in 2018, 90% of children were released to individual sponsors, 41% of whom were parents, 47% were close relatives, and 11% were of another relationship.

Sponsors can be:

  • A parent
  • A legal guardian
  • An adult relative
  • An adult individual or entity designated by the child’s parent or legal guardian
  • A licensed program willing to accept legal custody
  • An adult or entity approved by ORR

No matter the relationship, the sponsor must agree to ensure that the child attends immigration court. Case managers interview, fingerprint, and background check sponsors, among other measures.

A case manager tries to contact the sponsor and child 30 days after release, the process that can fall through for various reasons, including that the children or sponsors don’t want to be found for fear of being deported. The 1,500 “lost” children were ones whose sponsors didn’t answer the phone when ORR called to check in.

In his testimony, Wagner said the office has not been legally responsible for these children after release, but is “taking a fresh look” at its policies and legal responsibilities.


How do people become sponsors for unaccompanied children?

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A girl and other members of a caravan of migrants from Central America get ready to spend the night near the San Ysidro checkpoint in Tijuana, Mexico on April 29, 2018.
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Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Qualifying to be considered as a sponsor is just the beginning of the placement process.

In his testimony, Wagner detailed several measures the agency had made to improve its sponsor assessment process, which compels case managers to verify the sponsor’s relationship to the child and ensure they can provide a safe and healthy environment through:

  • Interviewing prospective sponsors
  • Conducting background checks of prospective sponsors
  • Checking fingerprints of non-parental or at-risk parental sponsors with an FBI database
  • Requiring prospective sponsors to sign a Sponsor Care Agreement

Since 2016, the office has refined its guidelines for sponsor approval to increasingly “help to protect children from traffickers, smugglers, and others who may wish to do them harm.”


What happens when children arrive at the US border with their families?

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A mother and her children, members of a caravan of migrants from Central America, enter the US border and customs facility, where they are expected to apply for asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico on May 2, 2018.
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Edgard Garrido/Reuters

If a family is caught crossing the border illegally, each individual would be criminally prosecuted and any children would be separated from the family, according to a “zero-tolerance” the Justice Department unveiled last month.

This is the policy that many of Trump’s critics decried over the weekend, arguing it was inhumane to take small children away from their parents.

Since children cannot be tried or jailed as adults, they are transferred to government detention facilities as the legal case for their family moves forward.


How are Trump’s policies are different from past administrations’?

Thomas Homan, acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said at the announcement of the “zero-tolerance” policy, that DHS has “always separated families” under two conditions:

  • If officials cannot tell the adult is a parent and the child is being trafficked
  • If adult individuals are being prosecuted

Past administrations would often just deport immigrants who entered the country illegally instead of detaining them.

The Trump administration’s policies have drawn widespread criticism, and Obama administration officials pushed back on claims that Democrats are responsible for the policy.

“This policy is new, cruel, and unprecedented,” Jon Favreau, who worked as a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama, tweeted. “It was not an Obama policy. It was not a Bush policy. It was not a Clinton policy. That is a fact. And that is what all of us – Democrats and Republicans – should want changed as soon as humanly possible.”

When NPR asked White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the “cruel and heartless” separation of children from their parents on May 11, he dismissed any wrongdoing, saying the children would be “put into foster care or whatever.”

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy on May 7, his warning was clear: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”