The Current Unaccompanied Minor Crisis at the Border

When President Biden entered office, many of the previous administration’s restrictive policies were terminated, such as the travel and visa restrictions or the Muslim ban.[1] However, the administration was not prepared to also handle the large number of migrants arriving at the border.[2] It is not the amount of immigrants entering the country that is the “crisis.” The crisis is found in the inhumane treatment of immigrants in immigration detention facilities throughout the United States. Conditions at the U.S.-Mexican border gained attention during the 1990s, when scholars and politicians debated how to manage immigrants and their children regarding the U.S. educational, welfare, and political systems.[3] Today, there is a humanitarian crisis centering on unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexican border.

There have been numerous debates surrounding proponents of supporting aid and assistance, and the word “crisis” when discussing the United States’ southern border. Some organizations, such as the Migration Policy Institute, feel that while the influx of migrants was predictable, the underlying issues causing migration need to be addressed.[4] Opponents, such as Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, see the conditions at the border as manageable with current resources and therefore, not a crisis.[5]

Since 1820, U.S. immigration has occurred in waves, peaking then declining.[6] The first wave started in 1820 and consisted mainly of English-speakers from the British Isles.[7] The Catholic church’s rise in power during the 1840s and 1850s led to the second wave of Irish and German Catholics.[8] The third wave started in 1880 as the U.S. underwent the Industrial Revolution and jobs were easily available, and ended around the 1920s with the creation of numerical immigration quotas.[9] There was a pause for forty years during the Great Depression, and did not begin to rise again until after World War II.[10] The fourth wave began in 1965 with a large number of immigrants coming from Latin America and Asia.[11]

These big waves could have been predicted based on global events, such as the Catholic church’s dominance during the nineteenth century, or the country conditions in Latin America during the 1970s. There has been a slight decline in migration since 1965, but there was a stark distinction recently due to the “Trump Effect.”[12] The Trump administration made it harder for many people to enter the United States by implementing restrictive policies, as well as utilized anti-immigrant rhetoric to decrease the number of applications for immigration benefits.[13] However, this “Trump Effect” seemed to have little effect on the current immigration trend.[14] The most significant drop during the former president’s term stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic.[15]

President Biden has taken many steps to reverse the effects of the Trump administration regarding immigration matters. However, unaccompanied minors are not being properly cared for and are consistently overlooked in the United States’ immigration system.

When President Biden entered office, many of the previous administration’s restrictive policies were terminated, such as the travel and visa restrictions.[16] However, the administration was not prepared to also handle the large number of migrants arriving at the border, especially unaccompanied children.[17] It is not the amount of immigrants entering the country that is the “crisis.” The crisis is found in the inhumane treatment of immigrants in immigration detention facilities throughout the United States, specifically the treatment of unaccompanied minors. Conditions at the U.S.-Mexican border gained attention during the 1990s, when scholars and politicians debated how to manage immigrants and their children regarding the U.S. educational, welfare, and political systems.[18] Today, there is a humanitarian crisis centering on unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Discussion Around the Crisis

Some activists, such as the Immigrant Child Advocacy Network, argue that the large number of unaccompanied minors in these inadequate facilities requires drastic, immediate action.[19] The Biden administration previously predicted that up to 117,000 unaccompanied migrant children could cross the border during 2021, which would challenge various agencies’ ability to care for them, creating a crisis.[20]

Republicans have utilized the term “crisis” when discussing the influx of migrants at the border, while Democrats use “crisis” to encompass the humanitarian issues surrounding the immigration system as a whole. The Republican party traditionally is very security-minded, favors border policies, and perceives Biden’s reversal of some of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies as the cause of the crisis.[21] They view the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as a threat to national security rather than a humanitarian crisis.[22] House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy visited the U.S.-Mexico border and claimed that recent migrants are “not just people from Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador.[23] They’re now finding people from Yemen, Iran, Turkey.[24] People on the terrorist watch list they are catching, and they’re rushing in all at once.”[25] However, CBP told CNN that “encounters of known and suspected terrorists at our borders are very uncommon.”[26] The migrants arriving at the border fled humanitarian crises in their own home just to be faced with the humanitarian crisis ingrained into the U.S. policies surrounding immigration.

The different uses of “crisis” and the opinions surrounding immigration policies are not new. Since the 1970s, both Republicans and Democrats have advocated various methods of border control, deportation, and detention to try and solve this crisis.[27] However, to solve these problems at the border, the U.S. government has to address the real reasons for migration itself, such as gang violence, limited employment opportunities, natural disasters, or persecution.[28]

Changing Immigration Policies is Not the Only Reason for the Surge in Migrants

In reality, there are numerous other factors contributing to the influx of immigrants rather than simply a change in immigration policies. There have been natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Eta and Iota tearing through Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.[29] These hurricanes caused destructive storms, which resulted in almost 5.3 million people needing assistance, including over 1.8 million children.[30] Migrants lost running water, houses, crops, and other personal belongings due to these floods, and even now their living conditions are extremely deteriorated so families have been pushed into poverty.[31]

Coupled with these hurricanes and floods, the Northern Triangle has been dubbed Central America’s “Dry Corridor” due to the below-normal rain levels in the last few years.[32] The U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization has deemed this declining rain-levels as one of the worst droughts of the last ten years, which has left over 3.5 million individuals in need of humanitarian assistance.[33] These migrants may flee and seek opportunities in the United States, making them climate refugees.[34]

Unfortunately, the U.S. only accepts refugees who bring claims and prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or being a part of a particular social group, and meet other refuge requirements.[35] From October 2019 to January 2020, immigration courts adjudicated a total of 33,194 asylum cases, but judges granted only 8,828 claims during that time period.[36] In the fiscal year of 2020, a little over 40,000 asylum cases were adjudicated, but 73.7% of immigration judge decisions denied asylum, while asylum was granted only 26.3% of the time.[37]

Unaccompanied minors can apply for asylum if they are under eighteen years old, have no lawful immigration status in the United States, and have no parent or legal guardian inside the U.S. available to provide proper care.[38] These children are not given lawyers, but can retain one at their own expense.[39] The asylum officers conduct child-appropriate interviews while taking into account the child’s age, language skills, and other background information.[40]

The conditions in unaccompanied minors’ countries of origin are so abysmal as to require them to travel to a new country on their own, but once they are here, these children are treated inhumanely, therefore creating a crisis. Currently, the United States does not have a humane system to manage the influx of migrant children, and cannot properly care for each unaccompanied minor.[41]

The Process of Becoming an Unaccompanied Minor

The Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) has defined an unaccompanied minor as being under the age of eighteen who has arrived in the United States or at the border without a parent or legal guardian and without legal status.[42] Many of these minors are coming from the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.[43] These children flee their home countries for a variety of reasons, such a high rates of violent crime, gang violence and recruitment, and extreme economic insecurity.[44] Some argue that making immigration consequences harsher will deter children from entering the country; however, there is almost no research suggesting that U.S. immigration policies factor into a child’s decision to leave a home country and make the perilous journey to the United States.[45]

As of March 9, 2021, 2,800 unaccompanied minors were waiting to be placed in shelters, but there were less than 500 beds available for them.[46] The Office of Refugee Resettlement has stated that the number of unaccompanied children is constantly changing due to changing conditions in the children’s home countries.[47] As previously mentioned, natural disasters have ravaged El Salvador and Honduras, which creates more incentive to travel to the U.S.[48] In addition to these disasters, the Biden administration has created the perception of relaxed immigration enforcement, encouraging migrants to come to the U.S. by terminating various programs implemented by the previous administration.[49]

These unaccompanied minors face numerous obstacles while journeying to the United States. If they are classified as an “unaccompanied minor,” they may not have family members to support them or protect them.[50] They are also at an extremely high risk of being exploited and abused by smugglers and human traffickers that they encounter on the trek.[51] The journey itself can cause significant trauma, and these children are likely to experience more trauma being detained by border officials.[52]

However, these unaccompanied minors do have rights. In 1997, the Flores Settlement Agreement was created to set standards for detaining, releasing, and caring for migrant children under government custody.[53] Under this agreement, children are not permitted to be detained with parents in facilities made for adults and unequipped to properly care for children, and are supposed to be placed in the least restrictive setting possible accounting for various factors, such as the child’s age, special needs, medical needs, and contact with family members.[54] On top of these protections, the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act also governs how the U.S. government is supposed to care for unaccompanied children.[55] When an unaccompanied minor is apprehended, Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) has 72 hours to turn the child over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”) which maintains a network of shelters throughout the United States.[56] The ORR attempts to locate the unaccompanied minor’s relatives living inside the U.S., or locates other sponsors to care for the child.[57] However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of unaccompanied minors have been stuck in grossly inadequate CBP facilities.[58] These facilities not only create health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also place great mental stress on the unaccompanied minors, creating a crisis.

The Biden administration has attempted to process these children more humanely and reunify children with their parents.[59] There have been reports circulating that children are forced to sleep on gym mats due to overcrowding and do not receive showers for days at a time.[60] As of March 24, 2021, more than 3,000 children in the facilities had been there for longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.[61] However, the current administration is bridging gaps between Border Patrol, Health and Human Services, and Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure children are transferred to shelters and released as quickly as possible, while managing the limited bed space in existing facilities.[62]

The Biden administration has acknowledged that these facilities are not suitable places for children, and officials have released unaccompanied minors quickly to sponsors when possible.[63] However, the large volume of migrants at the border was entirely predictable based on Latin America’s current conditions.[64] The Trump administration promised to deter migrants from crossing the border through various policies and rhetoric, and since Biden has appeared to encourage immigration from Latin America and relaxed on restrictive immigration policies, there is an increase in migrants at the border.[65]

Regarding the rhetoric surrounding this influx and the conditions in housing facilities, the Biden administration has deemed it a “situation” or a “challenge,” but has not used the word “crisis” regarding these matters.[66] The administration has stated that the pandemic creates a “crisis” in these facilities, but has not directly commented on the treatment of unaccompanied minors or called their living situation a crisis.[67] Immigration authorities treat unaccompanied minors as migrants first and children second, which is creating a crisis regarding these children at the border.

Conclusion

Due to the recent influx of immigrants coming to the United States, border facilities are incredibly overcrowded for adults and unaccompanied minors.[68] The current administration has not labeled the situation as a “crisis,” but has deemed it rises to the level of a “challenge.”[69] Some scholars argue that qualifying this situation as a crisis is a political move by Republicans to undermine the Biden administration and demonstrate that their policies have failed.[70]

Unaccompanied minors in immigration detention facilities are not receiving proper care or having their needs adequately met, and this has accumulated into a crisis at the border through the influx of migrants. A short term solution for the unaccompanied minor crisis is to find facilities to house them, but the long term problem regarding policies in place surrounding these children will need to be addressed.

 

  1. Muzaffar Chisti and Jessica Bolter. Border Challenges Dominate, But Biden’s First 100 Days Mark Notable Under-the-Radar Immigration Accomplishments. Migration Policy Institute. April 26, 2021. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/biden-100-days-immigration
  2. Chisti and Bolter, supra 9
  3. Zack Stanton. There’s an Immigration Crisis, But It’s Not the One You Think. Politico Magazine. March 25, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/03/25/border-crisis-immigration-explained-biden-trump-mexico-478049.
  4. Joey Garrison. White House backpedals after Biden refers to a ‘crisis’ at the border. USA Today. April 19, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/04/19/white-house-backtracks-bidens-comment-crisis-border/7288376002/
  5. Philip Martin. Trends in Migration to the U.S. Population Reference Bureau. May 19, 2014. https://www.prb.org/resources/trends-in-migration-to-the-u-s/
  6. Id
  7. Id
  8. Id
  9. Id
  10. Id
  11. Muzaffar Chisti and Jessica Bolter. The “Trump Effect” on Legal Immigration Levels: More Perception than Reality? Migration Policy Institute. November 20, 2020. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/trump-effect-immigration-reality
  12. Id
  13. Id
  14. Id
  15. Muzaffar Chisti and Jessica Bolter. Border Challenges Dominate, But Biden’s First 100 Days Mark Notable Under-the-Radar Immigration Accomplishments. Migration Policy Institute. April 26, 2021. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/biden-100-days-immigration
  16. Id
  17. Chisti and Bolter, supra 9
  18. Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, Stephanie Brewer, and Elyssa Pachico. Putting the U.S.-Mexico ‘border crisis’ narrative into context. Washington Office on Latin America. March 17, 2021. https://reliefweb.int/report/mexico/putting-us-mexico-border-crisis-narrative-context
  19. Danilo Zak. Fact Sheet: Unaccompanied Migrant Children (UACs). National Immigration Forum. November 2, 2020. https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-unaccompanied-migrant-children-uacs/.
  20. Robert Reich. Republicans are fabricating the border crisis. The Baltimore Sun. April 1, 2021. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0402-reich-immigration-border-20210401-yyqhrizazvhzxih5kdqdom626m-story.html
  21. Nicole Narea. 9 questions about the humanitarian crisis on the border answered. The Vox. March 27, 2021. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22346509/humanitarian-border-crisis-biden-unaccompanied-children.
  22. Id
  23. Id
  24. Id
  25. Julia G. Young. The Situation at the U.S.-Mexico Border Can’t Be ‘Solved’ Without Acknowledging its Origins. TIME. March 31, 2021. https://time.com/5951532/migration-factors/
  26. Id
  27. Nicole Narea. Migrants are heading north because Central America never recovered from last year’s hurricanes. The Vox. March 22, 2021. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/3/22/22335816/border-crisis-migrant-hurricane-eta-iota.
  28. Id
  29. Id
  30. Id
  31. Drought in the Dry Corridor of Central America. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States. http://www.fao.org/emergencies/crisis/dry-corridor/en/.
  32. Id
  33. 8 U.S.C.§ 1158
  34. Jason Hopkins. Few Asylum Seekers Have Legitimate Claims, Latest Data Indicate. Daily Caller. February 19, 2020. https://dailycaller.com/2020/02/19/most-immigrant-asylum-claims-are-bogus/.
  35. Asylum Denial Rates Continue to Climb. TRAC Immigration. October 28, 2020. Jason Hopkins. Few Asylum Seekers Have Legitimate Claims, Latest Data Indicate. Daily Caller. February 19, 2020. https://dailycaller.com/2020/02/19/most-immigrant-asylum-claims-are-bogus/.
  36. Minor Children Applying for Asylum By Themselves. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. March 23, 2021. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-and-asylum/asylum/minor-children-applying-for-asylum-by-themselves
  37. Who is an Unaccompanied Minor? National Immigrant Justice Center. https://immigrantjustice.org/issues/unaccompanied-immigrant-children.
  38. Minor Children Applying for Asylum By Themselves, supra 42
  39. Isacson, Meyer, Brewer, and Pachico, supra 20
  40. Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program Fact Sheet. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/programs/social-services/unaccompanied-children/program-fact-sheet/index.html
  41. U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-land-border-encounters/usbp-sw-border-apprehensions
  42. Danilo Zak. Fact Sheet: Unaccompanied Migrant Children (UACs). National Immigration Forum. November 2, 2020. https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-unaccompanied-migrant-children-uacs/
  43. Id
  44. Priscilla Alvarez and Kaitlan Collins. Record number of kids are in Border Patrol custody and beds are scarce, documents show. CNN Politics. March 9, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/08/politics/children-us-border-patrol/index.html.
  45. Id
  46. Id.
  47. Id.
  48. Zak, supra 48.
  49. Id.
  50. Id.
  51. Abbie Gruwell. Unaccompanied Minors and the Flores Settlement Agreement: What to Know. National Conference for State Legislatures. https://www.ncsl.org/blog/2018/10/30/unaccompanied-minors-and-the-flores-settlement-agreement-what-to-know.aspx
  52. Id
  53. Id
  54. Id
  55. Id
  56. Id
  57. Narea, supra 23
  58. Id
  59. Id
  60. Id
  61. Id
  62. Narea, supra 29
  63. Claire Hansen. The Messaging Battle Over the Border. U.S. News. April 6, 2021. https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-04-06/is-there-a-crisis-at-the-border
  64. Id
  65. Id
  66. Id
  67. Id
  68. Id

 

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