Unaccompanied alien children: an overview

Unaccompanied alien children: an overview

The number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) arriving in the United States is straining the system put in place over the past decade to handle such cases. UAC are defined in statute as children who lack lawful immigration status in the United States, who are under the age of 18, and who are without a parent or legal guardian in the United States or no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody. Two statutes and a legal settlement most directly affect U.S. policy for the treatment and administrative processing of UAC: the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008; the Homeland Security Act of 2002; and the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997.

Four countries account for almost all of the UAC cases (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico) and much of the recent increase has come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Policy challenges:

  • the Administration has recently announced an initiative that is aimed at unifying efforts among the various agencies charged with UAC responsibilities, and Congress is considering increasing appropriations for the various agencies involved. These efforts, however, are geared toward responding to the immediate crisis, and there is no way to know whether the numbers of UAC will decrease, increase or level off over the long run. Also, although there is speculation about what is causing the increase in UAC attempting to illegally enter the United States, there is no clear answer to the root causes. A clearer understanding of the factors that make up the “push-pull” of this extraordinary migration will aid the Administration and Congress in framing the most effective policy responses
  • in addition, it is unknown how many of these children will qualify for asylum or other forms of immigration relief that may allow them to remain in the United States, or if many of them will be returned to their home countries. If, as some observers have noted, many of the UAC have family in the United States, and many of those family members, in turn, are not legally present, it raises thorny policy questions. Not only does it hinge on what is in the “best interests of the child,” it also hinges on what is permissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act and other relevant laws