What is driving the mass migration of thousands of Central American children to the U.S.?
The recent surge in child migrants is attributed to a combination of factors, such as governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that are struggling to govern effectively, entrenched poverty that makes it difficult for large numbers of young people who are entering the workforce to find jobs, and powerful armed criminal groups that are targeting children who are especially vulnerable to physical harm and manipulation to carry out illicit activities. Unaccompanied children are also drawn to the U.S. to reunify with a family member residing here. More detailed information is available here.
What happens to unaccompanied children once they arrive in the U.S.?
Children originating from countries that do not share a border with the United States are picked up by U.S. border patrol and handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of apprehension. They spend an average of one month in ORR custody before being released to a sponsor, typically a family member, until their case is heard in an immigration court. According to Migration Policy Institute, approximately 85% of unaccompanied children have a family member residing in the U.S. National Public Radio addresses this topic well here.
How has this situation evolved into a crisis?
The United States Government projects that as many as 90,000 unaccompanied children will enter the U.S. by the end of this fiscal year with as many as 30,000 children arriving from June through September. This situation has prompted President Obama to declare a humanitarian emergency and has put the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of this response. Overloaded immigration courts have become further backlogged as unaccompanied children can wait up to 18 months for their case to be heard. Communities are also struggling to meet the increased demand for social services in an environment of fiscal austerity. Migration Policy Institute’s article provides more explanation here.
What support do unaccompanied children need?
There is a need for children who are in ORR’s custody to know about their legal rights and their legal options. Once the children are released to their families in the U.S., there is also an urgent need for pro bono attorneys that are trained in immigration law and sensitive to the special needs of unaccompanied children to petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile status on behalf of eligible children. Unaccompanied children also need access to social services, such as English language classes, vocational skills training, and medical care.
How are we addressing the needs of unaccompanied children?
We have been responding to the mass migration of unaccompanied children to the U.S. by sending our staff attorneys around the country to the Lackland Air Force Base (which recently closed) and surrounding shelters in San Antonio, Texas where the unaccompanied children are temporarily housed. With support from our JFON Austin attorney, who is experienced in working with unaccompanied minors, JFON network attorneys are informing children about their legal rights and advising them of their options while they are housed at the base and the shelters. However, this immediate, short-term involvement is only the beginning of the immigration process with which the children need help.
After the children leave these facilities, the majority will be sent to live with family in the U.S. as they await an immigration court hearing. These children desperately need an immigration attorney a to help them apply for benefits they are eligible for that will enable them to remain safely in the United States, including a special immigrant juvenile visa for children who were abandoned or neglected. Our attorneys will engage in long-term work with unaccompanied children that can put them on the path to legal residency and a better quality of life.
With your support we can expand the capacity of the JFON network to provide further legal assistance to unaccompanied children by taking on special immigrant juvenile cases.
Join us in demonstrating what it means to be a good neighbor:
- Make a financial contribution to help vulnerable immigrant children seeking protection
- Volunteer with a Justice for Our Neighbors site in your community
- Share information with your network about the unaccompanied children crisis
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