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The Immigration Processes for Unaccompanied Minors

In the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, all people, including non-citizens, in the United States are guaranteed the right to due process. Unaccompanied minors going through the immigration process interact with three departments: Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice.

Typically, Border Patrol is the first agency with which unaccompanied children interact. Border Patrol falls under the Department of Homeland Security and is allowed to detain a child for 72 hours. If the child identifies an adult relative in the U.S., the agency may allow the child to leave under the supervision of that person; otherwise, Border Patrol turns the child over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Whether the child is released to a family member or to the ORR, they are given a “Notice to Appear,” which requires them to report to immigration court for removal proceedings. Although some receive pro bono aid, these children are not guaranteed legal counsel. A new program, "justice AmeriCorps," will enlist 100 lawyers to provide legal assistance to the children. This program is under the direction of the U.S. Justice Department and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

The ORR falls under the Department of Health and Human Services and is responsible for ensuring the welfare of each unaccompanied minor while they undergo immigration proceedings. About 85 percent of these children are reunified with their families or placed with a foster family. The remaining children are placed in shelters.

While under the care of the ORR, unaccompanied minors undergo immigration proceedings in an immigration court which is part of the Department of Justice. If the child can prove that they would face persecution or torture in their home country, they can be granted asylum in the U.S. Some children also qualify for “Special Immigrant Juvenile” status if they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected in their home country. Both asylees and minors who receive Special Immigrant Juvenile status are placed under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Children who are not granted asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile status cannot stay in the country. They must report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. While the United Nations estimates that 60 percent of unaccompanied minors in the United States qualify for relief from deportation, only about 1 percent receive asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile status.


See all Immigration post.