On any given day this year, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has been caring for more than 2,100 unaccompanied child immigrants.While the issue of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. isn't new, the scale of the recent increase is. From October 2011 through March, 5,252 kids landed in U.S. custody without a parent or guardian — a 93 percent increase from the same period the previous year, according to data released by the Department of Health and Human Services. In March alone, 1,390 kids arrived.When apprehended, these kids are not just automatically sent back across the border.
Unaccompanied children are first processed by the Department of Homeland Security, and then turned over to the ORR while the deportation process begins. Once in a shelter, the search begins for their relatives or an acceptable custodian, while nonprofit organizations try to match the children with pro bono attorneys. When a custodian is found, the child can leave the shelter and await immigration proceedings.
Eighty percent of the children referred to the ORR end up in a shelter, according to a report released last month by the Vera Institute of Justice — a nonprofit that developed a program to better provide access to legal services for children. The average shelter stay is 61 days, and the report found that at least 65 percent of the kids end up with a sponsor in the U.S.
On this side of the border, people seem to be shaking their heads about this trend--not being sure what's going on. However, the Associated Press notes that the first ladies of the three countries most likely to be sending kids--Guatemala, Hondura, and Mexico--were in Washington, DC talking about this issue at a conference on unaccompanied minors (attended, in fact, by one of our doctoral students):
Mexico's first lady, Margarita Zavala, and Honduran counterpart Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo noted that tougher U.S. border security made it more difficult for parents working in the U.S. to return for their children, a suggestion as to why parents increasingly would put their children in a smuggler's care.
"The statistics are worrisome," said Rosa Maria Leal de Perez, Guatemala's first lady. "We've had 6,000 unaccompanied children repatriated in the last year."
So, as undocumented immigrants get stuck in the US because of tougher border enforcement, the children they have left behind get a bit more desperate to be reunited with their parents. This is unlikely to explain the entire situation, but it may well explain the recent increase.