Another Immigration Purgatory for Children

John Moore/Getty Images

Unaccompanied minors waiting to be processed by Border Patrol agents near the US-Mexico border, La Joya, Texas, April 10, 2021

Victoria was seventeen when, in 2014, she made the journey alone to the US: escaping gangs in her native El Salvador, crossing the Rio Grande on foot, and being placed in immigration detention in Texas. She endured more than a month there and another in an immigration shelter where she learned a bit of English, before being sent to her destination, a small town on the North Fork of Long Island. There, she lived briefly with an uncle whom she had not seen since she was a toddler. She was full of plans. Now twenty-four, a graceful, well-spoken mother and student at the local community college, fluent in English, she told me wistfully how she had intended to stay with her uncle for five years, work and save, and then go home to “build my own house.” That breezy optimism for her future belied the many obstacles she faced. She says now that if she had known how hard her life in the US would be, she wouldn’t have come.

Hers is not an unusual scenario. The Unaccompanied Children Program of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which released Victoria from federal custody and sent her to Long Island, has—since it came into force in 2008—placed more than 400,000 children with adult sponsors. The sponsor, preferably a family member, is meant to “provide for the child’s physical and mental well-being,” as the Department’s literature puts it, while the child awaits a determination of their immigration status. Over the past year, between October 2020 and this past July, the Office of Refugee Resettlement had placed 75,165 children—mostly teenagers, more boys than girls—with sponsors. The policy is a stopgap that reflects the Biden administration’s decision not to expel unaccompanied children arriving at the border, an aspect of the president’s aspiration for a kinder, gentler immigration enforcement regime.

But what appears to be a humane initiative to support families desperate to be united is riddled with flaws, both in conception and in delivery. As a result, the US immigration system has condemned many of these young people to a purgatory of insecurity and, on occasion, exploitation.


To begin with, the expectation of a timely decision to grant or refuse these children asylum (or special immigrant juvenile status) has proven a chimera. Most face a lengthy stay in a new land, but in limbo; by the middle of last year, only about a third of the cases of those who had been apprehended since 2014 had been resolved. From the point of view of a teenager, a wait of two or more years either feels agonizingly endless or just long enough that the risk of deportation is all but forgotten—only for the rug to be pulled out from beneath the resettled young person’s feet.

As for the sponsors, few see the policy that has delivered these children to them as a merely temporary measure. To some, it seems like an opportunity to give a beloved son or daughter or other young relative a better life. To others, it is just a chance to do a favor for a friend or relative back home. Whatever the sponsor’s motivation, signing up to take in a teenager entails considerable commitments, far beyond providing basic safety and financial support.

Unpaid for their fostering, the sponsors—who are usually unauthorized immigrants themselves—must keep the children in school, meet their medical needs, take them to immigration and family court proceedings, and assume their legal expenses. With the best of intentions, the parent or relative or former neighbor may not grasp the reality of what this all involves. Filling out the forms for school registration and doctor’s visits can be daunting if you come from a mountain village in a society that does not rely on the paper-pushing of the administrative state. Paying for the lawyer necessary for the minor’s appearances in immigration court is stressful. Your relationship with the child, now an adolescent in your home, is different from the one you had in the long-distance communications you shared in the past. And how are you supposed to deal with law enforcement if that child gets into trouble and is arrested when you come from a culture that fears police and are yourself vulnerable to arrest for being in the country illegally?

As for the federal government’s responsibility, the services of the Unaccompanied Children Program are seriously underfunded. Other than providing a national hotline to refer callers to local services, they are, as the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, puts it, “deficient in important ways.” Although minors who are disabled or otherwise vulnerable—about a fifth of the total—get home visits and case management from local social service providers under federal contract, most children released by the program are on their own. Guidance for the sponsors, meanwhile, let alone supervision of the care they provide, is almost nonexistent; and the legal orientation that is offered to sponsors, to prepare for the child’s eventual immigration proceedings, is simply mystifying to many.


Community organizations make a great effort to take up the slack. Teachers adapt high school classes to suit students who have little or no English (and sometimes with very little schooling of any sort from their home countries) and less interest in studying than in working at jobs that will enable them to support families at home. Social workers help children to address the traumas that most will have endured on their journey, and counsel them through the uncertainty of the wait to find out whether it was all worth it. Branches of Catholic charities and other nongovernmental agencies all over the country assist host families, but even their best efforts can’t compensate entirely for the strain these often stressed or troubled children put on local services.

Looming over the many problems with this cramped and temporary form of integration is the debt that most of these young people have incurred to bring them to the promised land. The family of one young woman I interviewed for this article paid $18,000 to the coyotes who escorted her across two countries to get to the US; once delivered, she was responsible for paying them back. In Victoria’s case, her uncle put her to work in his restaurant the day after she arrived. Migrating teenagers are expected to contribute financially from the benefits of the opportunity afforded them, and their worth is measured, in part, by how they suffer the loss of family, community, and country without complaint.


The assumption that unaccompanied minors who cross the southern border are processed and sent to family members eagerly waiting to care for them is a dangerous myth. While there are certainly some happy reunions, my interviews suggest that they are the exception. The reality is more complex and more vexing. For one thing, the relatives—even parents—who receive these minors may themselves have migrated decades earlier and be virtual strangers to the new arrivals. Two Guatemalan girls—the older one was only twelve—told a New Yorker reporter last spring that they were planning to live with a grandmother who had made the journey north long before they’d been born; this grandmother had no idea they were coming and hoping to stay with her. Not surprisingly, resentments arise. One boy I know was turned out by his aunt after only a couple of months because he would occasionally walk around the house with his shirt off. Like other young immigrants I’ve interviewed, he had to move many times before finding a stable home.

The Unaccompanied Children Program struggles to move its charges out of crowded shelters quickly and safely. The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s preference for sending children to parents or close relatives does not prevent deceptions. Lacking any capacity to follow up with contact and services, the agency has no control over situations in which sponsors or other adults may exploit or abuse their charges. A 2020 ProPublica investigation of child labor in Illinois found unaccompanied minors among teenage migrants working in factories and food-processing plants, in clear violation of the program’s stated policy.

I spoke to a social worker who ran a therapy group in New York City with boys from Bangladesh; she described how their relationships with their sponsors were completely unsupervised. “They are not usually blood relatives,” she said, “but everyone is called ‘uncle.’” Many of those boys became delivery workers, living together or sometimes with relatives who eventually reject them. I’ve frequently heard stories from such young people of being cheated by their sponsors—Victoria told me that her uncle had said she owed him seven thousand dollars to pay off the coyotes who’d guided her north; she later learned that the true amount was half that.

Not every migrant minor’s experience is negative, of course. One family I know has sponsored two sons and a daughter, who each arrived unaccompanied, in a largely successful and rewarding way. But even when the relationships are strong, the new immigrants still face major hurdles. The recently arrived daughter, who is sixteen years old, washed dishes sixty hours a week as a summer job just to pay her coyote debt; she is cutting that back to go to school this fall, but must keep making payments. Meanwhile, one of the two brothers has now been caught up in the deportation process because the lawyer hired by the family failed to show up at the boy’s immigration court appearance; the other son is a construction worker who recently got a work permit.


As for Victoria, she has found love and more rewarding employment; she has also been one of the lucky ones granted asylum. With her immigration status resolved last year, she has now managed to pay off her coyote debt and has gone back to school to train as an office assistant.


It was in 1990 that Congress approved Temporary Protected Status (TPS), granting a stay of deportation and a work permit to people from designated countries—currently including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen (though the list changes every year)—facing natural disasters or armed conflicts. Then, in 2012, President Obama used executive action to create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), giving conditional respite from deportation to young people brought to the US as children. The Unaccompanied Children Program—less visible but hugely important to hundreds of thousands of teenagers and their families—accounts for a third category of blameless, voiceless residents whose inclusion in American society is only temporary, contingent on a discretionary bureaucratic process over which they have no control.

If the policy of the US government is to protect vulnerable adolescents by resolving the question of their eligibility for permanent residence in the United States in a rational and timely manner, it is an abject failure. The Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement reports give us little data on how many young people are either deported or granted asylum (or the special visa for children abandoned by parents). Assessments from independent researchers and from the Migration Policy Institute offer a very mixed picture of the program’s success in uniting families and in child migrants’ adaptation to their new circumstances. Without detailed information gathered from the communities that receive these minors, it’s impossible to judge whether the program meets its aim of safeguarding their well-being and resettling them in any meaningful sense.

We do know, however, that the backlog in processing cases from the southwest border has grown enormously over the last few years. By 2020, of those children who had arrived at the border in 2014, about half had found some kind of immigration relief. Six years is long enough, but for children who arrived during the Trump years—five years ago already for thousands of them—the great majority of their cases remain unresolved. According to Mark Greenberg, formerly a Health and Human Services official in the Obama administration and now an executive at the Migration Policy Institute: “The reality is that these kids will stay for a very long time, possibly for the rest of their lives.”

Given that likelihood, it might be tempting to see the program functioning as an under-the-counter form of family reunification, which is a stated policy objective of the legal immigration process. But if that were the case, the program falls short here, too. Its manifest deficiencies of legal guidance and long-term assistance see to that. Surely, there are better, aboveboard ways to reunify families. Greenberg points out that 40 to 45 percent of the young people who come unaccompanied do so in order to be with a parent. If we acknowledge that children ought to be able to live with their parents, it follows that the Central American Minors program, which permits parents to request refugee or parole status for a young person still residing in their home country, should be expanded. Initiated by the Obama administration, terminated by Trump, then revived by Biden, it is currently available only to parents “lawfully present in the United States.” A policy that made unauthorized parents similarly eligible could be a valuable part of comprehensive immigration reform.

The pressure on the system—and the need for an overhaul—will only grow with, as seems likely, an increase in young Afghan refugees, creating an additional test for Biden’s promise of a “fair, orderly, and humane immigration system.” For those politicians already hostile to that purpose, the Unaccompanied Children Program is a tempting political football: Iowa’s Republican governor Kim Reynolds has bemoaned what she called “the president’s problem,” and Senator Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, recently complained that “every town is now a border town.” The youngest immigrants could again become the focus of national attention, but this time less as victims of what was cruel and capricious in a Republican president’s immigration policy than as protagonists in a narrative of failure and crisis under a Democratic administration. Will the outcome go beyond anti-immigrant rhetoric? Probably. Will the boy whose lawyer didn’t show up at his immigration hearing be deported because the federal program that sent him to his family didn’t provide the legal assistance he needed? Very possibly.

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