By: Mario Bruzzone
Thousands of refugee and immigrant children come to the United States alone or with their families each year, many having fled life-threatening dangers in their countries of origin. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, more than 69,000 unaccompanied children entered the custody of the U.S. federal government. Unaccompanied children (UCs) are under 18 years old, have no legal immigration status, and arrive in the United States without a parent or legal guardian to provide care and custody. Typically, children are placed into a network of shelters that span the country. Shelter care providers offer temporary homes and services, including educational, medical, and mental health services and case management to reunite children with their families.
Because unaccompanied children are especially vulnerable to trafficking and criminal predation, the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) specified how federal agencies must handle situations involving unaccompanied children. Under the TVPRA, most UCs must be referred to HHS within 72 hours. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), situated within HHS, manages the custody of children while their immigration cases proceed in court. ORR is required to place each child in the least restrictive setting possible until it can reunify the children with a family member or other sponsor. In FY2019, systemwide length of care in ORR custody was 66 days.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented tremendous challenges to the health and safety of unaccompanied children in the United States—challenges that will continue in the medium term. Under the previous Administration, the U.S. government expelled unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border, until enjoined from doing so by the courts. These border expulsions exacerbated children’s vulnerability by sending children into danger of violence, abuse, poor health, and disease. As a matter of public policy and as a matter of public health, the argument was and is a false choice. Public-health experts repeatedly emphasized that border expulsions do not meaningfully arrest the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The United States can protect public health and safeguard UCs, even in a crisis.
As the United States proceeds with COVID-19 vaccinations and enters a new phase, an unusual opportunity has emerged to accomplish three key goals at once. First, the United States can respond to a publichealth crisis while drawing on the critical lessons of the pandemic, and with the high standards that the United States can afford. Second, the United States can address needs that predate the pandemic by improving coordination, transparency, and UC outcomes across the system of UC care. Finally, the United States can take proactive measures that help ORR prepare for the next UC crisis, whenever it may occur.
USCRI’s recommendations for addressing challenges in the care of unaccompanied children follow.