More unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. than ever before

An unaccompanied minor at the International Children's Center in Chicago plays with a toy train.
An unaccompanied minor at the International Children’s Center in Chicago plays with a toy train in his room Oct. 19, 2006. The center is a shelter that provides children, who have entered the U.S. illegally, with law students who serve as child-protection advocates. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
For two years, Rosie Reid-Correa worked at three shelters in Arizona addressing the medical needs of minors who traveled alone to the United States.

She said many of these unaccompanied minors made the long journey to escape violence and abuse in their native countries. Most of them came from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico and were between the ages of 12 and 17.
In 2012, right before leaving the shelters, Reid-Correa noticed more unaccompanied minors were arriving in the U.S. She recalled how management began pushing to shorten the amount of time children spent at the shelters.
“We wanted to get them out quick so that we could have more kids come through,” she said in an interview with Voxxi.
More and more unaccompanied minors are arriving in the U.S. each year.
More and more unaccompanied minors are arriving in the U.S. each year. (Photo by UNHCR)
Reid Correa’s account echoes a report released Wednesday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that shows the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. has doubled each year since 2010.
By the end of this year, an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors are expected to arrive in the U.S. seeking safe haven.
This unprecedented increase in the number of children traveling alone to the U.S. begs the question: Who are these children and why are they fleeing their native countries?
The report by the UNHCR titled “Children on the Run” seeks answers for this question. It also analyzes the extent to which these children may have international protection needs.
“We found that the large majority of these children may very well have international concerns fleeing armed actors, persecution, violence in their communities and abuse in their homes,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Wednesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
Guterres added that interviews were conducted with about 400 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras held in U.S. federal custody. He said a majority of these children believed they would not be safe in their home countries.
“Our central conclusion from the study, therefore, is that unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico should generally be screened for international protection needs,” he said.

What happens to unaccompanied minors once they reach the U.S.?

When unaccompanied minors are caught attempting to cross the border illegally to come to the U.S., immigration officials apprehend them and transfer them to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But now, with no signs of the inflow of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. declining, shelters are having a hard time keeping up with the demand. In fiscal year 2013, the number of children who were placed in shelters totaled 24,668, almost double what it was in fiscal year 2012.
Shelters, such as this one, provide unaccompanied minors with an education.
Shelters like this one provide unaccompanied minors with an education. (AP Photo/J.R. Hernandez)
The three shelters where Reid-Correa worked each housed 10 children and are run by a program called Casa de Sueños. The minors are housed there until a judge decides whether they will be allowed to stay with family members living in the U.S. or will be deported.
Reid-Correa said most unaccompanied minors usually stay in the shelters for a few months while their fate is decided. She recalled one rare case when a 13-year-old boy from Guatemala stayed for eight months.
During their stay at the shelters, unaccompanied minors are provided food, clothes, medical care and an education. They are also assigned a case manager and an attorney to help them obtain immigration relief to remain in the U.S.
For Reid-Correa, one of the biggest challenges of working with unaccompanied minors was hearing about the hardship and abuses they endured while trying to reach the U.S. She recalled one boy who said he lost his sister at the border amid the chaos of running away from U.S. Border Patrol agents and a girl who said she was raped as she made her way to the U.S.
“You look at them and they tell you stories, but you almost don’t believe them,” she said. “You just wonder how did they do it?”

Concerns with reunification of unaccompanied minors with relatives

One of the main goals of the shelters housing unaccompanied minors is to reunite them with family members living in the U.S.
Reid-Correa said that in the two year she worked at the Tumbleweed shelter, most unaccompanied minors were released to relatives and few were deported.
She said though the relatives were required to undergo screenings, she worried that some of them “felt obligated” to take custody of the children. She also worried that the children were being sent to relatives who were still trying to settle in the U.S. themselves and didn’t have enough resources to care for the children.
“You don’t really know if they’re going to be okay or if they’re not going to be okay,” she said. “But you would hope that it’s going to be better than it was before.”
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency works to “ensure that children are released to family members or other sponsors that can care for the child’s physical and mental well-being.”
Most unaccompanied minors are reunited with family members in the U.S.
Most unaccompanied minors are reunited with family members in the U.S. (AP Photo/David Maung)
“ORR conducts home studies prior to release if safety is in question,” the ORR states on its website. “ORR also funds follow-up services for at-risk children after release to sponsors from ORR custody.”
Still, some child advocates are concerned about the well-being of unaccompanied minors who are released to family members living in the U.S. Areport, released last month by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies as well as Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), highlights some of those concerns.
Lisa Frydman, one of the authors of the report, said she worries that shelters are releasing unaccompanied minors to family members “very quickly” and without adequate screenings.
“What the Office of Refugee Resettlement, I think, is struggling to figure out is how to both balance the challenge of placement for some of these children with the safe release issue,” she said in a call with reporters last month.
The report also highlights that not all unaccompanied minors are placed in shelters. Some are transferred to “staff-secure facilities” and  juvenile detention centers. Many of these children are placed in deportation proceedings and don’t have attorneys to represent them in court, leaving them to navigate the U.S. immigration system on their own.
Some recommendations the report makes to address this issue include providing unaccompanied minors with legal counsel and child advocates, devising “child-sensitive” procedures and implementing “the best interests of the child” standard in immigration proceedings.
“With the historic numbers of children coming alone to seek protection in the United States, we need to meet our international and moral obligation to ensure a fundamentally fair process,” said Wendy Young, president and immigration policy expert for KIND. “Due process for these uniquely vulnerable children requires that we provide them at the very least with a lawyer to represent them.”
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