How the US Cares for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

And are We Doing a Good Job of It?

US Border Patrol agent carries immigrant child on Tex-Mex border
U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border. John Moore / Getty Images

 Undocumented immigrant children under the age of 18 traveling or living in the United States without a parent or guardian are known as “unaccompanied children.” There are a lot of them, and once they are found, the federal government becomes responsible for their care.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 57,000 such unaccompanied children were apprehended in the United States during fiscal year 2014 alone.

Most of the unaccompanied children taken into custody during 2014 were from Central America. During the spring and summer of 2014 an unprecedented number of women and unaccompanied children from the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala entered the United States seeking asylum. At the time, President Obama characterized the sudden influx of Central American refugees as a “humanitarian crisis.”

How Unaccompanied Children are Apprehended

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has overall responsibility for apprehending undocumented immigrant children. Most unaccompanied children are apprehended along the US borders by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Unaccompanied children in the interior are typically apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

How Unaccompanied Children are Processed and Cared For

Once apprehended, unaccompanied immigrant children go through the following process:

  • Using translators, CBP or ICE confirm whether the child is truly not being accompanied by a responsible adult.
  • If unaccompanied, the child may be held for up to 72 hours in a facility separate from adults. During the detention period, ICE or CBP tries to determine the child’s identity, nationality, age, and physical and mental condition. The agency also performs a background check for any evidence of criminal activity, previous attempts to illegally enter the US, and evidence of persecution in the child’s home country. If the child has no identification, the agency bases its evaluation solely on what the child tells the investigating officers.
  • Through translators, CPB or ICE informs the child of his or her rights and provided with a list of fee legal services.
  • If CBP or ICE determines the child has a criminal record, is believed to be violent or otherwise pose a threat to the public, he or she may be detained in a secure juvenile facility and given access to a lawyer.
  • The child is given an opportunity to apply for legal admission to the US or to file a claim seeking asylum as a refugee.
  • If the child does apply for legal admission or file for asylum, he or she is placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. ORR then becomes responsible for the care, custody, and long-term placement of the child. Placement of the child may include being placed in the custody of a relative or other responsible adult “sponsors” living in the U.S., or deportation.

Until they are released to an adult sponsor in the U.S., sent back to their home country or sent to a juvenile detention center, the unaccompanied children are cared for through a network of state-licensed ORR-funded care providers that provide the children with various services including housing, educational, medical, and therapeutic services.

According to the agency’s guidelines, the children in ORR’s care are to be provided with:

  • Access to Legal services;
  • Education;
  • Culture, language and religious observation;
  • Physical and mental health care; and
  • Recreation

Program Costs

In Fiscal Year 2013, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) operated the unaccompanied children program with a total budget of $376 million. In order to deal with the unexpected influx of unaccompanied children from Central America in 2014, the program’s budget increased to $868 million for Fiscal Year 2015.

The ORR operates under the federal Refugee and Entrant Assistance program, which had a total operating budget of about $1.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2015, increasing tp $2.185 billion in Fiscal Year 2016.

Adult Sponsors are Also Screened

The ORR’s care providers are required to conduct several background checks on potential adult sponsors prior to releasing children to them.

The depth of the background checks depend on the level of relationship of the child to the sponsor. Relatives, for example, are not as aggressively checked as non-related sponsors.

[ US Needs to Better Investigate Asylum Seekers, GAO Reports ]

According to the GAO’s report, ORR care providers released nearly 52,000 unaccompanied children from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras to U.S. sponsors between January 2014 and April 2015. In nearly 90% of those cases, the sponsors were parents or other close relatives already living in the United States.

Sponsors of unaccompanied immigrant children are not required to have permanent legal U.S. residency status.

How is the ORR Child Care System Working?

The GAO found that the sudden influx of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. from Central America in 2014 initially overwhelmed the ORR, forcing the agency to quickly increase its bed capacity and develop a plan for meeting future needs.

Once the initial surge from Central America subsided, the number of children placed in ORR’s care declined significantly through May of 2015, but began increasing rapidly by October.

The GAO took the ORR to task for failing to update its anticipated capacity plan on an annual basis, thus preventing it from properly preparing for such wide variations in needed resources.

How Good is ORR Child Care?

After reviewing a random sample of the case files of children in ORR’s care, the GAO found that the files often failed to contain the documents needed to confirm that that the children had received all the required services.

In 2014, ORR revised its procedures to require on-site inspections of its care-provider grantees. However, ORR told the GAO that it had been unable to perform all of the inspections it had intended to do during fiscal years 2014 and 2015, because of “lack of resources.”

ORR is required to provide follow-up services to only a small percentage of unaccompanied children after they have been placed with a sponsor, such as children who had been victims of human trafficking.

In 2015, the ORR set up a call center to assist unaccompanied children facing problems with their post-release placements, and began making well-being follow-up calls to all children 30 days after their release.

In its report, the GAO recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

  • Develop a process to regularly update the ORR’s unaccompanied children capacity plan;
  • Improve the methods the ORR uses to monitor its care provider grantees; and
  • Develop processes to ensure ORR’s post-release monitoring activities provide reliable and useful data.

In its response, the HHS agreed with all three recommendations.