Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adolescents & the Border Crisis, Part 2: Unaccompanied Minors and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA)

Since October, nearly 63,000 youth have been apprehended attempting to enter into the United States through the Mexican border (Park, 2014). Since 2011, the number of children from Central America attempting to enter America has doubled each year (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2014). These children, labeled either unaccompanied minors (UAM) or unaccompanied alien children (UAC), are coming to the U.S. primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They are frequently coming in an attempt to escape poverty, sexual assault, violence from gangs, kidnapping, or murder. This multi-part series of will explore the impact of border migration by unaccompanied children and youth on social policy in the U.S.

Unaccompanied alien children (UACs) are currently the center of much debate across the nation.  President Obama has urged Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the influx of UACs, emphasizing the need to speed up the deportation process (Folye, 2014).  However, Congress remains divided on how to address the situation.  The crux of the debate centers around two existing policies.  The first is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order from the Obama administration that was signed in June 2012. DACA allows undocumented minors deferred deportation if they arrived before 2007 and if they meet specific criteria.  Deferment can be revoked at any time, and it does not provide lawful immigration status, a green card, or citizenship.  Instead, deferment indicates that the Department of Human Services (DHS) does not consider the child a danger to national security or public safety. 

It has been suggested the dramatic rise in UACs is a direct result of smugglers lying to children and their families about DACA,  telling them that they will be given a ‘free pass’ to remain in the United States if they are able to successfully cross the border. However, a study of over 400 UACs conducted by San Diego University showed that children have limited knowledge about the U.S. immigration system and few believe that they will be given special consideration based on their age (Kennedy, 2014).  In addition, legal counsel and child advocates are rarely appointed to UAC immigration proceeding.   As a result more than half of UACs do not have attorneys with them in court, or anyone to help them navigate the confusing U.S. immigration system (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies & Kids in Need of Defense, 2014).  This lack of representation increases the likelihood of a negative case result, such as the UAC being returned to a dangerous living situation (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies & Kids in Need of Defense, 2014). 

Large gang populations in their hometowns make UACs vulnerable to trafficking, as these gangs often single out young children (Kennedy, 2013).  Boys are targeted for recruitment into gangs or to become child soldiers; if they resist such recruitment, they are at risk of violence or death.  Girls are often targeted by gangs to be ‘girlfriends’ or to be trafficked for sex (Kennedy, 2013).  On the journey to America, youth face the risk of being robbed, assaulted, and sexually violated by gangs, other individuals, and even law enforcement officers (Cavendish & Cortazar, 2011). 

When youth reach the border, they reach out to a ‘coyote’ or ‘pollero’ to smuggle them across.  The fee to cross is often over $1,000 per person; if a youth does not have the money upfront they will become indebted to the smuggler (Cavendis & Cortazar, 2011).  Youth may be forced or coerced into trafficking to repay their debt, or may be sexually assaulted to have some of the debt forgiven. 

Once UACs cross the border successfully they are placed in shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They stay in these shelters until ORR is able to release the youth to relatives or other caregivers while they wait for their deportation hearing. An estimated 90 percent of these children are able to be placed with a caregiver, who may reside anywhere in the country (Lind, 2014). However, as we will discuss in Part 3: The Impact of Border Migration on U.S. Social Policies Related to Youth, placement in America does not end the child’s vulnerability to exploitation. 

Caitlin Gallacher, ChildRight: New York Intern


Cavendish, B. & Cortazar, M. (2011). Children at the border: The screening, protection and repatriation of unaccompanied Mexican minors.  Washington, DC: Appleseed.

Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) & Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). (2014). A treacherous journey: Child migrants navigating the U.S. immigration system. Retrieved from

Foley, E., (2014). For border crisis, many bills but no clear answer.  Retrieved from

Kennedy, E. (2014b). ‘No place for children’: Central America’s youth exodus.  Retrieved from
Kennedy, E. (2013).  Refugees from Central American gangs. Forced Migrations Review, 43, 50-52.

Lind, D. (2014). Thousands of children are fleeing Central America to Texas- alone.  Retrieved from

Park, H. (2014). Q. and A. Children at the Border.  Retrieved from

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2014).  Children on the run: Unaccompanied children leaving Central American and Mexico and the need for international protection.  Retrieved from

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