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Children on the Run: UNHCR and US Conference of Bishops Reports

This year 60,000 immigrant children, without parents or papers, could arrive in the United States. This is according to a report released earlier this year by the Department of Migration and Refugee Services for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which compared these young migrants to wartime refugees, escaping the pervasive fear and hopelessness in their home countries. The issue of unaccompanied minors has received a lot of attention recently as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also released a study documenting the experiences of child migrants in a report called “Children on the Run”, released last week.

Last year about 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant minors came to the US and passed through what’s known as the “Shelter-Release” program by which these youngsters are taken into custody by US Border Patrol then placed in a shelter and eventually released to relatives. So far, nearly 10,000 undocumented immigrant children passed through the Shelter-Release program in the first quarter of the 2014 fiscal year.

About 95% percent of those minors are from Central America. Some make the arduous journey through Mexico on their own; some are smuggled in with relatives footing the bill. None of them have visas and few have money or connections.

Many come to reunite with family or to seek a better education or job opportunities. But the Bishop’s report finds that most come to escape widespread violence and the dangers of gang recruitment. Despite warnings from some politicians about “amnesty” attracting more undocumented immigrants, the researchers said that none of the minors they interviewed mentioned the DREAM Act or potential immigration reform as motivation for crossing the border. Throughout their research they only heard that explanation from 2 people, both ICE agents.  The researchers noted that generalized violence has increased while state and local governments have failed to adequately protect their citizens.

Unfortunately, under current immigration law, there is not much that can be done to help these young migrants stay. Some may have a relative to sponsor them while others can prove they were the victims of human trafficking or crimes and obtain a special visa. But for many, there are few legal options and most unaccompanied minors are sent back to their home countries only to return to the fear, hopelessness and violence they were attempting to escape.

The full Bishop’s Report is here. A summary of the UNHCR Report is here.