A Humanitarian Crisis: Unaccompanied Children

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have fled to the United States. What does this mean for communities, including schools, across the country?

“I am here [in the United States] because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm.”


Maritza, a teenager from El Salvador, is one of tens of thousands of children—primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico—who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Since last October, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained some 57,000 unaccompanied children, over double the number of the previous year. A pressing humanitarian crisis now confronts communities across the country: Who will care for these children? How will schools respond to the newcomers arriving at their doorsteps? Will communities welcome them or meet them with distrust?

This crisis has already been swept up into the national debate over immigration reform. Earlier this month, protesters blocked and threatened busloads of unaccompanied children, seeking to halt their transportation to immigration processing facilities and temporary housing. Just this past weekend, hundreds of protests were staged against undocumented immigrants, energized by the continued influx of unaccompanied children. Protesters held signs calling these children “threats” and an “invasion,” urging officials to “Return [them] to Sender.” The true threat is actually to the children who make an unthinkable journey to the United States alone—because the alternative is even more unthinkable.

Why are children crossing the U.S. border?

Some unaccompanied children cross the U.S. border to be reunited with family members or to escape entrenched poverty. Many of these unaccompanied children, however, seek refuge in the United States from physical threats including, but not limited to, harm from gangs, drug cartels and other forms of organized crime, or abuse in the home by a family member or another caregiver. A UN report, “Children on the Run,” reveals that as many as 58 percent of the unaccompanied migrants arriving in the United States have “international protection needs.” Sufficient grounds have been found to show that deportation back to their home countries could lead to grave abuse, if not death. 

What happens once they enter the United States?

If detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents, these children are held in detention centers for up to 72 hours. Then one of two things happens, depending on their country of citizenship. A 2008 law (aimed at combating human trafficking) requires that all unaccompanied children from countries that do not share a border with the United States be granted “removal proceedings” in immigration courts, rather than a brief screening process. Therefore, the children from Central America are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and enter what can be a long legal process. Meanwhile, their counterparts from Mexico are not automatically granted proceedings, and if they do not sufficiently demonstrate fear of persecution or trafficking, they are often repatriated within a day or two after being detained and screened.

The immigration court system in the United States is tremendously backlogged. A single case can take several years to appear before a judge, which means that tens of thousands of children are in a legal limbo. In the meantime, the unaccompanied children move from shelters—where they stay for an average of 35 days after being detained—and are sent to live with relatives or sponsors.

What does this mean for schools?

Upon being released from federal custody, the children will enroll in school. According to EdWeek, educators across the country are seeing increased numbers of immigrant students and are often the primary responders to their diverse range of needs. These include counseling and other mental health services (trauma and post-traumatic stress are common), ESL programs and guidance on obtaining legal representation and on navigating a new school culture.

Meeting the multifaceted needs of unaccompanied children requires focused efforts. Come the start of the school year, if not before, consider taking these steps:

  • Remind your school administration that federal law provides all children with the right to enroll in school, regardless of their immigration status. 
  • Discuss with school counselors if appropriate resources are in place to extend bilingual mental health services.
  • Conduct home visits with the children’s relatives or sponsors.
  • Speak out against bias, however it appears.
  • Learn more. “Children at the Border” and “Children in Danger” are two starting points.
  • Connect with advocacy organizations in your community that are working to provide pro-bono legal counsel specifically to unaccompanied children.

How is your school responding to these children? What advice can you offer other educators? 

Lindberg is a writer/associate editor for Teaching Tolerance. 

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