Treatment of Unaccompanied Minors in Detention Centers

 In 2013, around 38,000 unaccompanied minors were detained at the U.S./Mexico border. All of these children, coming from countries where they are facing drug and gang violence while dealing with political corruption. In 2014, that number increased by at least 15,000.The recent jump shows that the majority of the children are coming from from Central American countries, those countries being Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Once detained, their fates depend on their country of origin. If the children were previously living in Mexico, then they get sent straight back. The only way some of the children can stay is if they prove that they are a victim of neglect, abuse, or abandonment in order to receive Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status and even then, those are really hard things to prove because of how vague this stated by the law (Lloyd, 2005). The rest of the children get sent to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and then to detention centers. (Gordon, 2014).

A bar graph of child migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

Detention centers are meant to house the children while it is decided whether they are going to be deported or be put into foster care. “In fiscal 2011, ORR had 53 shelters that housed 6,560 kids. By 2013, there were 80 shelters with nearly 25,000 unaccompanied children.” (Gordon, 2014). Due to the recent surge in unaccompanied minors, these facilities are under a strain to keep up to code in order to properly care for the children. While there has been 30 more centers opened, they are not always up to the regulations and requirements set by the Flores Agreement in 1997, stating that the facilities needed to have food and water, medical assistance in emergencies, toilets and sinks, adequate temperature control and ventilation, adequate supervision to protect minors from others, and separation from unrelated adults whenever possible. (CBP’s handling of Unaccompanied Alien Children, 2010). Not all of the facilities follow the guidelines set by the agreement and in turn are not taking proper care of them by not providing enough space and by criminalizing unaccompanied minors.


The amount of unaccompanied minors that were detained at the border in 2014 was more than expected. There were so many that they started allowing in more children than the facilities can hold. A lot of the time, facilities will hold twice as many children as they’re supposed to. “The INS Daily Population Report stated that the Krome, Florida facility had a capacity of 200 people but it held 445 detainees.68 Similarly, the same report stated that the Los Fresnos, Texas facility had a capacity of 350 people but it held 674 detainees” (Navarro, 1998). One of the problems with this is that it makes them susceptible to illnesses which is dangerous in a closed space because it can be contagious and there might not be enough medical attention to help them all. Some of the illnesses that have gone around are things like tuberculosis, chicken pox, and scabies (Picket, 2014). While treatable, it is dangerous to allow these kinds of things because, as previously mentioned, there might not be enough medical care to either properly help everyone who is affected or it might be difficult to stop airborne illnesses from spreading. Along with illness, another problem with overpopulating these facilities is the lack of beds to accommodate the children. According to Wendy Young (Lind, 2014), a worker of Kids in Need of Defense, most facilities are meant to have 6,000 to 8,000 kids a year. This means that there are only enough beds for a certain amount of children. If there are only 8,000 beds a year and 60,000 unaccompanied minors, that means that 52,000 children do not have a bed to sleep on and are sharing a floor with the rest of the children who are in there with them which can be detrimental to their health.


The way the children are treated is very similar to the way an inmate would be treated at a prison. Some of these facilities are surrounded by fences with barbed wire or are very heavily policed (Navarro, 1998). Children know what a prison looks like and have a good idea of what a cop looks like. In their case, the security guards, being the authority that is supervising them, play the role of the “cop” and can make the children feel like they are prisoners. “The kids were never left unattended. They went to school inside, they played sports inside, and they only got out for supervised outings in the community or for medical and mental-health appointments” (Gordon, 2014). The fact that they are not allowed anywhere without supervision has an effect on their self esteem and can add to the stress and fear of being detained for so long. They are in there for very long periods of time, usually without any contact with family members. Unaccompanied minors can also become fearful of being watched over because of the abuse they might experience at the hand of their security. In 1989, a security guard was convicted of sexually assaulting an unaccompanied minor (Navarro, 1998). Other incidents such as mental and verbal abuse have been reported. Incidents like these can have long lasting effects on the children’s physical and mental health. Keeping them in a place where they don’t feel safe around the people who are there to protect them is damaging . On top of being afraid of security, they are afraid of some of the children who are also there. There have been reports of being robbed and threatened by the other children at night, which puts everyone else on edge. At that point, it leaves them with the feeling that they cannot trust anyone in the detention centers.


Unaccompanied minors are brave souls that choose to make the journey from their home countries all the way to the United States by themselves. We need to listen to them and provide them with the resources they need, even if it is at the level of the detention centers they are being kept in. It is important to recognize that this has been an issue for a long time, it has just been given more media attention in the past year. The presence and actions of these children should speak to the need for immigration reform. They are trying to tell us what 12 million undocumented immigrants have already said.


Navarro, Lisa Rodriquez. 1998. “An Analysis of Treatment of Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children in INS Detention and Other Forms of Institutionalized Custody.”Chicano-Latino Law Review 19:589-612.

Lloyd, Angela. 2005. “Regulating Consent: Protecting Undocumented Immigrant Children from their (Evil) Step-Uncle Sam, or How to Ameliorate the Impact of the 1997 Amendments to the SIJ law.” Public Interest Law Journal 15:237-261.

Lind, Dara. 2014. “14 facts that help explain America’s child migrant crisis” Vox, July 29. Retrieved December 15, 2014 (

Gordon, Ian. 2014. “70,000 Kids Will Show Up Alone at Our Border This Year. What Happens to Them?” Mother Jones, August. Retrieved December 15, 2014 (

2010. “CBP’s Handling of Unaccompanied Alien Children” Department of Homeland Security. Office of Inspector General. Retrieved December 15, 2014 (

Picket, Kerry. 2014. “Homeland Security Report Confirms Diseases Spreading at Border Facilities” BreitBart, July 31. Retrieved December 15, 2014 (