Equity & Diversity

How Should the U.S. Treat ‘Unaccompanied Minors’?

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 25, 2011 2 min read
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Considering the “best interests” of a child is not a formal precept in immigration and asylum law regarding the U.S. treatment of minors who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexican border without their parents, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. By contrast “best interests” is part of U.S. family law, which dictates that the government will ensure that a child’s well-being is of the greatest importance in any legal decision or policy, even if it means paring back parental control, according to the institute, which just released a paper comparing the typical U.S. response to “unaccompanied minors” with that of member countries of the European Union. (Hap tip to ImmigrationProf Blog.)

The paper argues that most European countries consider “best interests” of the child more than the United States does. For example, the United States deports almost all unaccompanied minors, while most European countries deport them only as a last resort. Many unaccompanied minors in the United States also don’t ever have legal representation, while many of the European countries appoint a guardian to an unaccompanied child to act as a legal representative.

The practices of both the United States and European countries have their critics. Child-advocacy groups, who have successfully pushed for improvements in how the U.S. government cares for unaccompanied minors, believe that overall this group of minors needs more consistent legal representation. Some people blame the protections for unaccompanied minors in Europe for increasing illegal immigration.

The paper says that 73 to 75 percent of unaccompanied children in the United States are boys from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. By contrast, the majority of unaccompanied minors in Europe are from African countries with economic troubles, or war-torn nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facilities in the United States that house unaccompanied minors must meet minimum federal standards for education, health care, mental health care, legal, and family reunification services, according to the Migration Policy Institute. I visited one of these facilities a few years ago and wrote about the schooling there for unaccompanied minors.

But I know many teachers of English-language learners may have unaccompanied minors in their classes who crossed illegally into the United States and were never picked up by U.S. immigration authorities. These youths are often living with relatives, or even on their own, and working to support themselves while going to school. They are a vulnerable group.

Recently I mentioned on this blog a report with recommendations for how educators can make some of these youths aware of their legal options, before they turn 18 and have some of their opportunities to get legal status in this country narrowed. That report was released by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in cooperation with Kids in Need of Defense.

It urged educators to pay attention to some of the big-picture immigration issues affecting some of their students.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.