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Unaccompanied Minors Face Uncertainty in U.S. System

Every year, several thousand unaccompanied minors—children who are younger than 18, have no legal status, and do not have a parent or guardian to care for them—enter the complex web of the U.S. immigration system.

The vast majority of these children are apprehended within a day of entering the U.S., usually at the Mexican border or other ports of entry like airports in major cities in the West. Many are seeking escape from poverty, war, or other dangerous circumstances in their home countries. They may come on their own, or may have lost contact with an adult along the way.

A new report documenting the journey of these children through the American immigration and justice system has just come out, and it paints a picture of a rather complex and intimidating process. The report was written by the Vera Institute of Justice, which has administered the federal government's Unaccompanied Children Program since 2005. The program, which is supported by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, provides legal services to these children. ORR is an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Though the numbers of these children overall are relatively small, it's still striking that several thousand of them are making their way, solo, into the U.S. every year. And that the trend appears to be on the uptick. In fiscal year 2009, for example, a total of 6,092
unaccompanied children were brought into ORR custody after being referred by the Department of Homeland Security. In fiscal 2010, that number jumped 35 percent to just over 8,200.

Once these kids are in ORR custody, they are supposed to receive basic services such as health care, mental health services, recreation and classroom education, and, when possible, reunification with a family member or other adult sponsor.

That piece of the process—matching kids with adults who can care for them—is critical, according to the report. Most children do end up with an adult relative but many of them are paired with a "family friend."

There's much, much more in this report to illuminate the twists and turns that these young children go through as they move through the U.S. system.

For a great story about efforts to provide schooling to these children, read this piece from former Education Week staffer Mary Ann Zehr.

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