In the 1980’s and 1990’s, as a result of political, armed struggle in Central America, the United States experienced a dramatic increase in undocumented, unaccompanied youth immigration (Byrne 2008:9). Most of these immigrant youth crossed the Mexico-United States border (Vera 2008:10). Migration has continued as a result of armed violence and poor economic conditions in Mexico and Central America. The now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would once detain unaccompanied immigrant minors. Prior to 1984, these youth were processed relatively efficiently and usually released to “a responsible adult” before immigration court proceedings (Navarro 1998:591-592). This meant that unaccompanied, immigrant youth could be released to the care of foster homes or other charitable organizations.
Yet, after 1984, the INS instituted new restrictions — unaccompanied, undocumented youth could only be released to “a parent of lawful guardian” (Navarro 1998:592). The Supreme Court supported the INS’s restrictions in Reno v. Flores (Navarro 1998:597). Because many immigrant children and youth did not have family in the United States, most were shunted off to detention facilities, the conditions of which were often extremely poor.
With the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002, undocumented (and unaccompanied) youth now fall under the responsibility of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (Byrne 2008:9). The DHS goes through a process to determine whether or not the immigrant is under the age of 18 and unaccompanied (Byrne 2008:18).
Most sources claim that conditions have greatly improved since the ORR has taken responsibility for undocumented, unaccompanied youth. These sources cite improved conditions, the use of low-security facilities and the availability of foster care as positive changes.
Yet the DHS’s priorities — national/homeland security — conflict with the ORR’s priorities — immigrant youth welfare. The DHS aims to apprehend and remove unaccompanied immigrant youth from the United States (Lopez 2010:23-24). On average, “over 7,200 unaccompanied immigrant children [are] detained by the U.S. each year” (Lopez 2010:6). Immigration agencies under the DHS may detain these children and youth on the Mexico-U.S. border or within the borders of the United States. Because the federal government of the United States has made a clear shift of its priorities toward “national security,” child welfare is often curtailed at the border.
Many children and youth who have have first-hand experiences with U.S. Border Patrol report severe abuses, including but not limited to: physical abuse, handcuffing, starvation, dehydration, cramped and uncomfortable conditions and refusal of youth’s requests for medical treatment (Byrne 2008:9).
Currently, the federal government of the United States is also pushing to privatize many immigration detention centers (Lopez 2010:39). Doing so reduces expenses and the burden of responsibility on the government’s part. However, privatization means that corporations can outright discard the federal government’s protective policies in favor of efficiency, which often means an increase in child abuse.
The repatriation of undocumented immigrant youth is another area of U.S. immigration policy that deserves attention. In repatriating immigrant youth (returning immigrant youth to their home countries), the DHS often reintroduce youth to dangerous conditions including, but not limited to, increases in poverty and violence, and homelessness (Thompson 2008:55). For repatriated immigrant youth, there is also a significantly higher risk of being subjected to human trafficking, commonly for labor or sex (Thompson 2008:53).
Byrne, Olga. 2008. Unaccompanied Children in the United States: A Literature Review. New York: Vera Institute of Justice.
Lopez, Alejandra. 2010. “Seeking ‘Alternatives to Detention’: Unaccompanied Immigrant Children in the U.S. Immigration System.” Honors College Theses. Paper 97. http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/honorscollege_theses/97
Navarro, Lisa Rodriquez. 1998. “An analysis of Treatment of Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children in INS Detention and other forms of Institutionalized Custody.”
Thompson, Amy. 2008. A Child Alone and Without Papers: A report on the return and repatriation of unaccompanied undocumented children by the United States. Austin, TX: Center for Public Policy Priorities.