by Sarah Bronstein, Senior Attorney, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.
The issue of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. - Mexico border has been the focus of a great deal of attention recently and presents unique challenges to our immigration system and the advocates who seek to help these children. The latest figures issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show thus far in fiscal year 2014 (from October 1, 2013 – July 31, 2014), 62,998 unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the southern border. This is double the number of unaccompanied children apprehended in fiscal year 2013.
The majority of children who have been apprehended at the border are from the Northern Triangle of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. These countries currently have, respectively, the first, fourth and fifth highest homicide rates in the world. Large areas of these countries are controlled by armed gangs, leaving children particularly vulnerable to violence. Children report gangs attempting to recruit them as early as age ten. These children are not just fleeing poverty; they are coming because they fear for their lives.
These children need support to begin to recover from the trauma they have endured. Yet advocates have raised significant concerns about the conditions in temporary shelters set up by the U.S. government. After children are apprehended by CBP, the agency must transfer custody of unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, within 72 hours of their arrest. Since the Homeland Security Act of 2002, ORR has been the federal agency that is responsible for the care and custody of unaccompanied children. For several years, ORR has operated temporary shelters throughout the United States to house children while ORR caseworkers seek to reunify them with family members or family friends in the United States.
In response to the dramatic increase in numbers of children apprehended by CBP, ORR opened three large facilities housed on military bases: Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland in San Antonio, Texas; Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma; and Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura, California. ORR announced at the beginning of August that due to slightly decreasing numbers of apprehensions, it would phase out the use of these three facilities over the next eight weeks. Advocates had raised significant concerns about the conditions in which children were held at these facilities and the difficulty in gaining access by attorneys and legal workers due to security procedures at these military facilities. There have been reports that ORR plans to open another large facility to house unaccompanied children in the El Paso, Texas area, but those are thus far unconfirmed.