Reframing the Unaccompanied Minor Crisis from Politics to Humanity
If you watch the news at all, you probably know that during the past 12 months, the United States Customs and Border Protection, along with other agencies working at the southern border, have seen a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minor children entering the United States. This increase has been accompanied by an intense political debate on immigration policy, which does little to help those at the border, working through the harsh reality of this situation on a daily basis.
So what are the basics of the unaccompanied minor (UAM) situation? The U.S. Department of Justice defines an “unaccompanied alien child” as “a person under 18, without a parent or legal guardian in the United States or without a parent or guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody.” In 2002, the responsibility for UAMs was transferred from Immigration and Naturalization Services to the Department of Health and Human Services (specifically the Office of Refugee Resettlement) and the Department of Homeland Security. In fiscal year 2013, authorities at the southern border picked up 26,206 UAMs. To date in fiscal year 2014, more than 52,193 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended. Of those 52,000, most come from Honduras (15,000-plus), followed by Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador.
There is a specific process for children stopped at the border, especially when their home country is not Mexico (those from Mexico can be immediately turned back by border agents into Mexican territory). Border agents conduct an initial screening process that is supposed to take 72 hours. During this process, the child is kept in a central detention facility, and given meals and a health screening. Once this initial process is over, the child is transferred to DHHS, who places them in temporary housing with a private shelter or at a Department of Defense facility until an immigration judge sees the child and a permanent decision is made. That decision might be placing the child with a family member already living in the U.S., granting them asylum, or returning them to their home country.
The uptick in numbers coming across the border has maxed out usual resources at within Customs and Border Protection, DHHS, and DHS, leaving many to ask what happened to create this crisis. In truth, the numbers of UAMs have been growing during the past three to five years —unmentioned by media and political circles — and have finally reached a boiling point. In many cases, an increase in crime, gang activities, and smuggling in Central American countries has fueled the flow through Mexico and into the U.S.
Given my short summary, you might be asking why the Center for Disaster Philanthropy is paying attention to this issue. This particular issue is much different from the sudden-onset national disaster that CDP usually focuses on, but it is nonetheless a slow-onset humanitarian crisis that is drawing resources and attention from the non-governmental organization community we interface with, and government agencies and communities served by the foundations we partner with. It simply cannot be ignored.
Federal agencies responding to the UAM crisis include FEMA (who is heading up the coordinated inter-agency response); Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Save the Children and Catholic Charities USA largely head the response from NGOs. Other NGOs are working to find the best way they can respond, working in coordination with other agencies.
During a number of conference calls on this topic, the following have been identified as urgent needs:
Shelter – current shelters are at maximum capacity and it’s estimated that shelters to house 10,000 children at various locations in the Rio Grande valley is needed to ensure that children had a bed within 12 hours of the completion of initial processing.
Medical — Bilingual medical workers, willing to spend at least two weeks at a time working in facilities along the border are urgently needed.
Attorneys — Having an attorney to advocate for the child greatly helps judges work through what should be done in each case. Whatever decision is ultimately made, there is always an accompanying legal process.
There are other needs as well, such as assessing long-term program delivery (it is unlikely this problem is going away anytime soon), finding ways for local communities to meet the influx, and addressing this crisis in the countries children are arriving from.
As the Center for Disaster Philanthropy dives into research and needs assessment of this topic, we’d like to hear from you.
If you are a donor or a foundation, what do you need to know about UAMs crossing into the U.S.? What is your interest in helping organizations fund responses to this situation? How is this situation affecting your community?
If you are an NGO, what are your unmet needs? How can we best assist you in collaboration and cooperation in this area?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.