Under immigration law, unaccompanied minors are children under the age of 18 who cross international borders without the presence of a parent, legal guardian, or responsible adult relative. They are sometimes referred to as child migrants, separated children, or unaccompanied alien children (UAC). To ensure the health and safety of this vulnerable population, unaccompanied minors receive special protections under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the immigration and anti-trafficking laws of the United States and other countries. In general, these protections place limits on the duration and conditions of detention, guarantee access to basic care and education, and prioritize family reunification. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents apprehended a record 73,000 unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the southern border of the United States in 2019, up from an average of around 44,000 annually over the preceding four years. After declining significantly in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of unaccompanied minors surged again in 2021, creating a humanitarian challenge for the U.S. government.
Child Migrants from Central America
Before reaching the U.S. border, child migrants must make a difficult and dangerous 2,000-mile journey from the Northern Triangle northward through Mexico. Although some families pay smugglers or "coyotes" to organize transportation and shelter along the way, young people traveling without their parents remain highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, trafficking, prostitution, and forced labor. As a result, many unaccompanied minors endure physical and psychological trauma by the time they arrive in the United States. Yet 80% insisted that they planned to try again if their initial attempt proved unsuccessful.
Upon reaching the U.S. border, most unaccompanied minors are apprehended, screened, and processed by CBP officials. To be classified as refugees and qualify for asylum protection, migrants must prove that they face a credible fear of persecution or violence on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group if they are forced to return to their home country. Under U.S. law, unaccompanied minors do not have a right to government-provided legal representation. Although around half receive pro bono counsel through nonprofit immigrant rights groups, the other half must navigate the complexities of the U.S. legal system on their own. Between 2005 and 2014, the United States granted asylum to less than 30% of the unaccompanied minors who applied, but those who received legal assistance were five times more likely to be allowed to remain in the country.
Standards for Treatment of Child Migrants
Several laws and legal agreements have established rules for the treatment of unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody. The Flores settlement agreement (FSA) of 1997 concluded a series of lawsuits brought by immigrant rights advocates protesting what they viewed as inhumane detention conditions for child migrants. The FSA requires immigration authorities to place child detainees in the "least restrictive setting" possible and give them access to food, water, clothing, medical care, adult supervision, and other basic necessities to keep them safe and healthy. It also specifies that child migrants must be released "without unnecessary delay," which later court rulings interpreted as limiting the detention of minors to a maximum of 20 days. To comply with this limit, immigration officials have historically released entire migrant families that arrived with young children and allowed them to remain in the United States while awaiting asylum or deportation hearings.
Opponents of unrestricted immigration maintain that the FSA and other legal protections for child migrants create an incentive for families in Central America and Mexico to put their children at risk by sending them to the U.S. border. Some also claim that unscrupulous migrants exploit children by forming "fake families" to increase their chances of gaining entry to the United States. As a means of deterring migration by children and families, the Donald Trump administration enacted a "zero tolerance policy" in 2018 that required immigration officials to arrest, indefinitely detain, and prosecute anyone caught entering the United States without authorization, including parents traveling with children. Since the FSA limited the detention of minors, however, CBP agents separated 4,400 children from their families, reclassified them as "unaccompanied alien children," and transferred them to ORR facilities across the country while their parents went through immigration proceedings. Immigrant rights advocates condemned the separation of migrant families as traumatizing to children and a violation of basic human rights. Although the Trump administration rescinded the policy in response to court orders and a public outcry, nearly 400 separated children still had not been reunited with their families three years later.