At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Policy, Practice, & Protection


Children separated from their parents are among the most vulnerable of migrant populations. This heart wrenching reality, brought vividly before the public eye in the news coverage of the large-scale flight of unaccompanied children from Central America in the summer of 2014, has informed critical aspects of U.S. government policy for many years. Yet, systemic protections for unaccompanied and separated children have also been repeatedly and consistently undermined by immigration enforcement measures that fail to take into account our nation’s child welfare responsibilities or the unique legal and developmental needs of children. Caught in the volatile crosswinds of immigration politics, the U.S. government has struggled for decades with the appropriate treatment of unaccompanied and separated children crossing the southern U.S. border. Today, as policymakers attempt to find a new balance in light of the large numbers of Central Americans who have crossed our border—with tragic stories of the violence they left behind—it is essential that our approach recognizes the extreme vulnerabilities of children who migrate alone. This report by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) offers a range of policy and practice recommendations for the care and protection of unaccompanied children, informed by a series of three “Roundtable” meetings convened by LIRS in 2014 to consider current practice and ideal practice with unaccompanied children. The report that follows describes current policy and practice challenges and includes a set of fundamental principles for approaching work with unaccompanied children, as well as a comprehensive set of recommendations geared primarily towards U.S. government decision makers with responsibility for treatment of unaccompanied children. As a faith-based national organization with more than forty years of experience serving unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, LIRS puts forward these recommendations in a spirit of public-private collaboration and with an abiding interest in the protection of children. In FY 2014, over 68,000 children were apprehended, of whom 51,705 were from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—where rates of violence exceed that in recognized war zones. The proportion of girls and younger children also increased, creating greater risks. This marked increase in child migration highlighted various protection gaps in the systems serving unaccompanied children. Among those detailed in this report are the following: the flawed screening process at the border, which excludes many children from protection on the basis of nationality rather than individual circumstances; the use of inappropriate holding and institutional facilities both at the border and upon subsequent transfer; weaknesses in the system of placement, reunification and follow-up that fail to fully ensure children’s safety; the clear inadequacy of legal representation for children (despite heroic volunteer efforts); and budget-driven imperatives to fast-track procedures for children. Based on the policy, practice, and protection wisdom of participants in these Roundtable meetings, LIRS developed a set of child protection principles to guide governmental and non-governmental work with unaccompanied children. These principles, laid out in the report, have now been endorsed by a wide range of organizations with an interest in the treatment of separated and unaccompanied children, and undergird the recommendations we make. The President, the U.S. Congress, and federal government agencies must not lose sight of their legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to keep vulnerable children safe from harm. We have a proud tradition of extending protection to those who seek refuge on our shores. It is time to stop giving in to passing financial, political, and institutional pressures—with the lives of children at stake—and instead to commit to a consistent principled approach to the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant children.


  • Apprehension, Screening, and Referral to the Office of Refugee Resettlement: Department of Homeland Security and its federal agencies should develop both standard and emergency plans for the care of children in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs and vulnerabilities, utilizing child welfare professionals and legal service providers, implementing expeditious transfers to the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody, and building in procedural accountability.
  • Access to Justice: Congress, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services should maintain and build upon existing legal protections for unaccompanied children, ensuring that unaccompanied children have access to legal counsel and Child Advocates (guardians ad litem) to protect their legal and best interests, including “Know Your Rights” information, Legal Orientation Programs for Custodians, and access to legal proceedings with substantive and procedural integrity, resulting in legal protection for this vulnerable population and safe repatriation for those who are returned.
  • Family Reunification: The Office of Refugee Resettlement and its programming partners should prioritize child protection and safety in reunification decisions by revising assessment tools, improving collaboration, and preparing children and families for successful reunifications.
  • Post-Release Services: Congress should mandate, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement should create, a continuum of post-release services so that every child released from the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody receives some level of follow-up contact in order to safeguard children by connecting them with educational, legal, and child welfare resources; Office of Refugee Resettlement and its programming partners should support and engage local community-based service providers that help children and their sponsor caregivers over the longer term so they are equipped to meet the needs of unaccompanied children and their sponsor caregivers.
  • Improving Coordination: Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement should develop effective and efficient methods of coordination that place child protection at the center of cooperative efforts and set an example for staff, partners, and stakeholders; non-governmental organizations should proactively seek out areas for collaboration that better serve unaccompanied children and build on existing best practices.
  • Oversight and Accountability: Congress, Department of Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services should implement systems of checks and balances through creation of monitoring and compliance systems regarding the Prison Rape Elimination Act, Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, child protection and human rights, Significant Incident Reports, and Ombudsman’s offices that monitor children’s issues.