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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Teague, Esq.

Welcoming Unaccompanied Children: Part 2

Following up on the Part 1 post from March 20, here are updates and more context to illuminate the need for humanitarian compassion for the unaccompanied children, and their families, arriving at our southern border.

First, Cornell Law School offered the most helpful webinar I have seen to date on this issue on April 13, 2021, by Wendy Young, President of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), entitled "A Fresh Focus on the U.S./Mexico Border: Protection of Unaccompanied Children Grounded in Systemic Reforms." If you have an hour and really want to better understand this issue, this is an hour well spent.

It is important to realize that this is not the first time that we are seeing these heart breaking images. We have seen similar trends every spring and summer since 2014. In fact, earlier this week, the Atlantic had a brilliant piece on our collective “immigration amnesia” problem recounting the recent history of this and related issues. We have to find better, more compassionate ways to manage the southern border.

Many of the children arriving are actually coming with their families, only for their parents to be turned away and/or expelled at the border under Title 42, which is a public health policy that President Trump enacted last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Note that this policy was actually put into place over the objection of public health experts.) Under this policy, the prior administration returned families to Mexico to be metered in under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Biden administration is winding down and ending this program, but there is still much work left to do.

This situation creates a Hobbesian dilemma: do families stay together on the other side of the border and risk further violence and harm, or do parents send their children on alone to take a chance that they will live in safety with family in the United States? After all, even DHS admits that at least 80% of these children have relatives living in the United States, half of those being a parent or legal guardian.

The number of children arriving daily may seem alarming, but it reveals the extent to which migrants are suffering and desperately seeking survival. And if they cannot do so together, migrants are doing what any parent would do for their children: assure that they not only survive, but thrive.

Once admitted, unaccompanied children should be released from Border Patrol custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours. (Unlike adults, children cannot simply be released because they are...children.) The Office of Refugee Resettlement has bed space for 13,000 children, but with Covid restrictions, the number is smaller in reality. The children are waiting for the Department of Health and Human Services to locate, "vet" and do background checks on relatives in the US, and to make arrangements for children to be safely transported to family. Those without family in the U.S. will likely go to a foster care group or individual home.

Many U.S. families are coming forward and hoping to help -- or sponsor -- these children, but they must become licensed foster families in order to do so, which is a process that generally takes 4-10 months in the best of circumstances.

Ultimately, the issue centers around large numbers that are bottle-necked at the border because there is much proverbial “red tape,” and legitimately so for safety, to house and move children. Though the numbers continue to increase in 2021, it is important to keep in mind that at least 13,000 unaccompanied children were turned away and denied entry to the border in 2020 under Title 42 at the direction of the previous administration (in direct violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act).

Once released from custody to family or foster care, unaccompanied children face additional challenges to come in that they will have immigration court cases that will take years to wind through the immigration courts. But how exactly does a broken system provide effective legal notice to children? It cannot be understated that we must work to fix our immigration courts if these children, and all migrants, are to have due process.

For these reasons, consider holding these children in your heart and supporting the organizations doing the work on the border and providing legal services in the long term. The Interfaith Immigration Coalition has a toolkit, and here is additional information on how to support asylum seekers on this page of our new website.

The United States is capable of receiving and welcoming these children; let's do so.

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