Unaccompanied Children and the U.S. Immigration System: Challenges and Reforms

Annie Chen
Jennifer Gill
May 04, 2015

In fiscal year (FY) 2014, approximately 60,000 children with no lawful immigration status and no parent or legal guardian present or available to provide care were apprehended at or near the U.S. border and turned over to the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These unaccompanied children (UAC) were charged with violating U.S. immigration laws and were placed in deportation proceedings. They enter a system that involves numerous government agencies which they must navigate. Most are released by ORR if they have family or another sponsor in the United States able to care for them, though they must continue to fight their deportation in immigration court, often without an attorney. Many UAC have legitimate claims that would lead to legal status if they could navigate the country’s complex web of immigration laws—approximately 40 percent of UAC are potentially eligible for some kind of relief from deportation. This article discusses the immigration system that UAC encounter, challenges they face within this system and proposals for reform. First, it provides a general overview of the U.S. immigration legal and detention system that UAC come into contact with when they arrive at the border. Then it discusses legal remedies available to this population and explains the difficulties of obtaining legal status as well as other challenges children face after release from ORR custody. The article then surveys the growing consensus about and efforts for reform—such as appointing government-funded counsel for children, broader proposals to create a more “child-friendly” immigration system, and the need for more comprehensive immigration reform. The article also explores threats to the current system that extends due process protections to these vulnerable immigrants.