LIRS advocates for the best interests of all refugee and migrant children in the United States by ensuring federal legislation and policies protect the due process rights and welfare of these vulnerable populations. LIRS achieves this goal in the following ways:
- Educating Members of Congress on care, custody and protection needs of unaccompanied children.
- Advocating with the Administration and federal agencies to improve policies that safeguard children’s best interests.
- Collaborating with partners and stakeholders in enhancing children’s access to due process and protection.
Protecting Children Who Travel Alone
LIRS is the only organization that provides the full spectrum of services to unaccompanied migrant and refugee children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the United States. We serve both unaccompanied migrant children in ORR’s Unaccompanied Children’s Services Program and unaccompanied refugee minors in ORR’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program. Through our network of service providers we provide transitional foster care, safe release, sponsor support & family reunification services, as well as home studies and post-release services, and long-term foster care for children without family members in the United States with whom they can be reunified. LIRS is also one of two organizations that serve children in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) Program. The URM program serves children with refugee status who are resettled from abroad and former unaccompanied migrant children who have obtained legal status in the United States.
LIRS also advocates for compassion and justice for families who arrive at a U.S. border seeking protection. For additional information view our webpages on children who flee with their parents to the United States.
Unaccompanied Children Seeking Safety at Our Borders
Before 2012, the number of children arriving at a U.S. border without an accompanying guardian averaged between 6,000 and 7,000 annually. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered 38,833 unaccompanied children and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) served 24,668 unaccompanied children. In FY 2014, this number rose sharply to 67,339 encountered unaccompanied children and 57,496 unaccompanied children served by ORR. In FY 2015, the numbers of children arriving without parents has declined sharply and are lower than in FY 2013. The FY 2015 numbers show 39,970 U.S. Border Patrol encounters of unaccompanied children and roughly 26,000 unaccompanied children were placed in ORR care.
The vast majority of unaccompanied children who arrive at the U.S./Mexico border come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Prior to FY 2014, most children making the dangerous journey alone to the U.S. were boys. However, due to an increase in gender-based violence in these countries, the number of girls traveling alone increased in FY 2014. Also during this time period, the average age of children traveling alone dropped significantly. Children often embark on a dangerous journey for complex and intertwined reasons, including but not limited to violence in their home country by armed criminal actors, gender-based violence, forced gang recruitment, domestic abuse, human trafficking, family reunification and poverty.
The United States has been an international leader in protecting children through laws like the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which requires that the best interests of children be taken into consideration and ensures minimum due process protections are in place. This leadership is critical in caring for vulnerable children crossing the border, who are seeking safety. However, the United States falls short in other important aspects. LIRS continues to advocate for further protections in addition to the TVPRA: the expansion of legal representation at government expense for all children, post-release case management services, adequate conditions at the border and ensuring the government adequately screens Mexican children for protection.
Protecting Unaccompanied Refugee Minors
ORR’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program is different from other refugee or unaccompanied children’s programs in that it is the only long term care option focused on integration. The program places incredibly vulnerable children who have no option of living with family members in the U.S. into culturally appropriate foster care programs. Children are allowed to stay in the program until age 21, and even receive some basic assistance after that time if they are enrolled in college which allows them the stability needed to become productive young adults. In FY 2014, close to 1,700 unaccompanied children were served in the URM program. These refugee children came from 49 different countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Central America. LIRS accepted 221 new children into its program in FY 2014, and 154 newly placed children in FY 2015. In both FY 2014 and FY 2015, LIRS has witnessed an increase in the number of child refugees resettled from abroad as well as an increased number of unaccompanied children becoming eligible for the program. Since the number of youth eligible for the URM program is increasing, LIRS advocates for growth of the program, both in the United States and around the globe.
On December 1, 2014, the U.S. State Department announced the official launch of an in-country processing program for children in certain Central American countries. The program allows parents with lawful presence in the United States to apply for their children living in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras to come to the United States as refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Those who are granted refugee or parolee status through this program will be able to enter the United States in a safe, legal, and orderly fashion rather than embarking on the dangerous journey to the United States in search of safety.
LIRS urges the United States Congress to robustly support the CAM program while also recognizing that it is only one protection tool with a very limited scope that will aid a small number of child refugees in Central America. LIRS understands that many children and families from Central America are in immediate peril and will continue to make the difficult journey to the United States in search of safety. The establishment of the CAM program should not foreclose other avenues to life-saving protection, especially where the current parameters of the program are so limited in scope. Under no circumstances should children or others seeking protection be turned away at the U.S. border, or at other borders along the migration route, and denied access to the United States asylum system.
Executive Actions for Migrant Children
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
LIRS celebrated the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June 2012 and its recent announced expansion through executive action in November 2014. Unfortunately, however, the 2014 expansion of DACA is on hold due to litigation. The original DACA grants work authorization and protection from removal to eligible young migrants, in two year increments, providing some relief to youth who would have benefited from the DREAM Act (see below). Since 2012, approximately 600,000 young people have been approved for and benefited from DACA.
The opportunity for hundreds of thousands of young people to live without fear of removal is a significant achievement. However, in the absence of long-term legislation, the partial relief granted through DACA is only a temporary fix and confers no permanent legal status.
As people of faith, we strongly oppose removing important protections for vulnerable people, especially children, and continue to urge Congress to ensure that all children seeking refuge here are protected and have complete access to due process. The bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 provides protections for children arriving to the United States, including screenings to identify abuse. LIRS opposes recent efforts in Congress to strip some of the protections included in this law and to expedite the removal of children fleeing violence in Central America and seeking refuge in the United States.
Relevant Legislation in the 114th Congress
Protecting their best interests, this bill ensures legal representation for unaccompanied children and other vulnerable migrants while they navigate the complex legal immigration system. Many unaccompanied children are eligible for legal relief, but they may be denied access to due process without the support of legal counsel. Additionally, this bill would create a case management pilot project to increase court appearance rates for individuals released from DHS custody. LIRS released a statement of support of this legislation on February 29, 2016.
Protect Family Values at the Border Act (H.R. 3605)
H.R 3605 was originally introduced in the 113th Congress to which LIRS released a statement of support on September 24, 2013. This piece of legislation would lead to better screening of migrants apprehended by CBP to determine whether they are parents or are in need of humanitarian protection, require specialized training in child welfare for CBP personnel and require CBP to consider the impact of immigration enforcement decisions on children, and require DHS to establish standards to ensure all individuals in CBP custody receive basic humane treatment.
Child Trafficking Victims Protection Act (H.R. 3606)
This bill was reintroduced in the 113th and 114th Congress but was never passed out of the House Homeland Security Committee. This bill would expand protections afforded to unaccompanied children and would expand child welfare training of immigration officers.
Human Trafficking Detection Act of 2015 (H.R. 460)
H.R. 460 directs the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement a program to: (1) train relevant Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and other DHS personnel on how to effectively deter, detect, and disrupt human trafficking and interdict suspected perpetrators during the course of their primary roles and responsibilities; and (2) ensure that such personnel regularly receive current information on matters related to the detection of human trafficking.
Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act of 2015 (H.R. 1700)
H.R. 1700 would amend section 292 of the Immigration and Nationality Act to require “the Attorney General to appoint counsel for unaccompanied alien children and aliens with serious mental disabilities, and for other purposes.”
Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2015 (H.R. 1153)
LIRS opposes this legislation. In addition to making it more difficult for children to claim a credible fear of returning to their country of origin or request asylum, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2015 (H.R. 1153) would also strip away critical TVPRA protections for children. The bill expands the inhumane practice of detaining children in holding cells at the border.
Protection of Children Act of 2015 (H.R. 1149)
LIRS opposes this legislation. The Protection of Children Act of 2015 (H.R. 1149) amends the TVPRA by stripping needed protections for children. Currently, children from Canada and Mexico are screened for protections by Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers while children from other nations are screened by HHS workers with trauma-informed child welfare expertise. Despite CBP officers lacking the needed expertise and numerous reports showing that Mexican and Canadian children do not receive appropriate screenings, the bill mandates all children be screened by CBP officers. The bill also changes the definition of an “unaccompanied alien child” in a way that would prevent many vulnerable children from seeking and gaining protection.
Important Historical Legislation
LIRS supports the DREAM Act as an important component of fixing our broken immigration system. The DREAM Act is legislation creating an immigration process for undocumented immigrants, or “DREAMers” who entered the country as children and meet certain eligibility requirements. In recent versions of the legislation, eligible youth must have entered the United States before their 15th birthday and achieved certain education requirements, among other criteria.
Congress’s most recent attempt at a comprehensive immigration reform bill included multiple important provisions that would have provided greater access to due process and protection for children:
- Young undocumented immigrants known as “DREAMers” who were brought to the United States as children and who would benefit from the DREAM Act would have an expedited path to citizenship. DREAMers who spend 5 years in provisional status would be eligible to apply for Legal Permanent Resident status. Upon receiving LPR status, DREAMers could immediately apply for U.S. citizenship.
- The Department of Justice would appoint and pay for lawyers on behalf of unaccompanied children, people with mental disabilities, and particularly vulnerable individuals in deportation hearings. Providing lawyers would improve fairness and efficiency of the immigration court process.
- Children of a refugee or asylee’s spouse or child could accompany or join them in the United States. Additionally, surviving widows and orphans of principal applicants could continue the visa process after the applicant’s death.
LIRS Resources on Advocating for Children
- LIRS FAQ: Protecting Unaccompanied Children from Trafficking or Other Harm
- LIRS Backgrounder on Unaccompanied Children
- LIRS and USCCB Backgrounder on Unaccompanied Refugee Minors
- LIRS FAQ: CAM AOR – In-Country Processing for Central American Children
- LIRS Backgrounder on Family Separation
- LIRS Law and Policy Backgrounder on Unaccompanied Children
- LIRS Backgrounder on Unaccompanied Children and Access to Counsel
- LIRS Backgrounder on Department of Homeland Security Compliance with Flores
- Recent LIRS Policy Statements on migrant and refugee children
- LIRS System Diagram for Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors
- LIRS Flow Chart on the Apprehension Process for Children
- LIRS Graphic on the Release Decision Rationale for Unaccompanied Children
- Sign-on letter urging Attorney General Lynch to provide legal counsel for unaccompanied children
- Sign-on letter opposing “Operation Border Guardian”
- Sign-on letter for ORR funding to Support Unaccompanied Children
- Sign-on letter for Child Welfare Professionals at the Border
- Sign-on letter for Inadequate Notice for Children in Immigration Court Hearings
- Sign-on letter from Child Advocates Urging President Obama to Stop the Raids
- At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children
- Post-Release: Linking Unaccompanied Immigrant Children to Family and Community
How You Can Help
- Join the Stand for Welcome campaign to stay updated on our advocacy for children
- Visit the Action Center to support protections for children traveling alone
- Volunteer to be a foster family for migrant and refugee children
If you are a service provider for unaccompanied children interested in joining the Child Immigration Listserv to seek advice on children’s immigration cases, you can sign up here.