Alone and Unrepresented: The crisis of unaccompanied minors at the United States Border
The United States is still the first country of destination for immigrants, it hosts the biggest immigration detention infrastructure in the world, detaining roughly 380,000 to 442,000 persons each year, many of them are unaccompanied minors. Over the past several years, the number of unaccompanied children from the “northern triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) and Mexico attempting to enter the United States has increased significantly, on average 40,000 unaccompanied minors are detained at the U.S. border every year.
Why are these children leaving their countries of origin? And, are any of these children in need of international protection?
The situation for these unaccompanied children and others is somewhat unique in the humanitarian context because of a combination of factors such as poverty, violence, food insecurity, criminal activity and the increasing gang violence in the region. A report made by the UNHCR found that around 58 percent of children from all four of these countries provided information that clearly indicates they were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.
When unaccompanied children are detained by U.S. authorities at the border, they enter into a complex legal and structural framework designed to determine whether they should be repatriated immediately or if they should be granted temporary asylum in the United States, the majority of them will face the immigration system without a lawyer or even an interpreter and will be, as a consequence, repatriated to their countries within 48 hours of their apprehension with little or no assessment of the risks faced on their return, often leaving them without international protection and facing potential harm on the way back home.
The ones who are not immediately returned will spend years navigating the immigration system. Children are placed in cold holding cells and afforded minimal food, bedding, and medical care during their detention. In some facilities, children are held in cells within sight or hearing of adults, possibly including traffickers.
It is well established that the odds of prevailing in court are much better for an individual who has the assistance of a lawyer. Yet the government is under no obligation to provide legal counsel to unaccompanied minors. Jack H. Weil, a longtime immigration judge stated in 2016 –I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Weil said. “It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.-
Despite many initiatives to increase the availability of representation in children’s cases, still nearly three out of ten children remain unrepresented, and the ones who get to go to immigration court will have to wait in detention or with a sponsor around 721 days for their hearing date. More than 8,000 UAC cases have been pending for more than three years.
There are multiple nonprofit organizations that provide free legal aid for immigrants. If you are interested in volunteering or supporting, you can visit https://alotrolado.org/to learn more.