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Unaccompanied Children

Dec 9, 2011
Sarah Bronstein

Several thousand children are caught by the Department of Homeland Security every year.  Just as adults in this situation would be, children are detained and placed in removal proceedings before an Immigration Judge.  Children may be released from custody but they still must fight their case in court.  Children's cases in Immigration Court are very complicated yet even children do not have the right to appointed counsel.  Finding lawyers for children poses significant challenges. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will highlight some of the efforts CLNIC is making to address these challenges.  We will hear the stories of some of these children and discuss CLINIC's Legal Orientation for Custodians project and CLINIC's efforts to recruit pro bono attorneys. 

Statistics from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency charged with the custody and care of unaccompanied children show that the vast majority of children in ORR custody are from four countries:  Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.  While most children in ORR custody are teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, ten percent of the children in custody are under twelve and under.

Children come to the United States alone for many different reasons.  Some are fleeing abusive families or caregivers.  Others are fleeing lives of extreme poverty, forced labor and lack of access to education.  Many Central American children are fleeing gang violence and forced recruitment by gang members.  Some children were left behind by one or both parents who came to the United States to find work to support their families.  Now that they are teenagers, they are hoping to reunify with those parents. 

Most children in ORR custody are apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) attempting to enter the United States at or near the border or a port of entry.  Some children without lawful status are taken into custody within the United States by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a result of an internal enforcement action or because of the child's contact with local law enforcement.  Once it is determined that the child is unaccompanied by a parent, CBP or ICE turns those children over to ORR for placement in an ORR contracted facility. These facilities are located around the country and range in level of security from shelter care where there are no fences or restraints used on the children to secure care which is likely to be a juvenile hall.  The determination about how the child is detained is made by ORR on the basis of whether the child is a danger to him/herself or the community and whether he or she poses a flight risk. 

A parent, adult family member or other adult authorized to take custody of the child by a parent may seek to have the child released to him or her.  The proposed "sponsor" must provide biographical information and be fingerprinted for a background check.  Once the child is released, however, her troubles are not over.  The child is still in removal proceedings and must appear in Immigration Court.  The most common forms of relief sought by unaccompanied children are Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for children who are the victims of abuse, abandonment and neglect or asylum, primarily gang related or child abuse claims.  These cases are very complicated and difficult to prepare.  If a child cannot afford to hire an attorney or find an attorney to represent her, she must represent herself.  Her chances of success without an attorney are slim to none.  Over the next several weeks, we will delve into the lives of some of these children and explore the challenges and possibilities for addressing this issue.