By definition, an unaccompanied child (UC):
- Has no lawful immigration status in the United States
- Is under 18 years of age
- Has no parent or legal guardian in the United States or no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody
Following apprehension by a federal agency (usually the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)), UC are transferred to the care and custody of ORR while awaiting immigration proceedings.
ORR promptly places an UC in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child, taking into consideration danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight. ORR looks at each child’s unique situation and incorporates child welfare principles when making placement, clinical, case management, and release decisions that are in the best interest of the child.
Unaccompanied children have many inter-related reasons for undertaking the difficult journey of traveling to the United States, which may include rejoining family already in the U.S., escaping violent communities or abusive family relationships in their home country, or finding work to support their families in home countries.
The age of these individuals, their separation from parents and relatives, and the hazardous journey they take make UC especially vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.
The majority of UC are cared for through a network of state licensed ORR-funded care providers, most of which are located close to areas where immigration officials apprehend large numbers of children. These provider facilities are state licensed and must meet ORR requirements to ensure a high level of quality of care. Care providers operate under cooperative agreements and contract.
- Classroom education
- Health care
- Vocational training
- Mental health services
- Family reunification
- Access to legal services; and
- Case management.
They also provide a continuum of care for the children in a shelter facility, foster care or group home (which may be therapeutic), staff-secure or secure care facility, a residential treatment center, or special needs care facility.
Since 2003, ORR has provided care for and found suitable sponsors for almost 409,585 UC.
ORR assumes the following responsibilities while caring for UC entering the United States:
- Making and implementing placement decisions
- Ensuring that the interests of the child are considered in decisions related to care and custody
- Providing home assessments for certain at-risk categories of UC
- Conducting follow-up services for certain categories of children
- Overseeing the infrastructure and personnel of ORR-funded care provider facilities
- Conducting on-site monitoring visits of ORR-funded care provider facilities and ensuring compliance with ORR national care standards
- Collecting, analyzing, and reporting statistical information on UC
- Providing training to federal, state, and local officials who have substantive contact with unaccompanied children
- Developing procedures for age determinations and conducting these determinations along with DHS
- Granting specific consent for state court jurisdiction over children
- Cooperating with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to ensure that sponsors of unaccompanied children receive legal orientation presentations
- Ensuring, to the greatest extent practicable, that all unaccompanied children in custody have access to legal representation or counsel
- Releasing UC to qualified sponsors and family members who are determined to be capable of providing for the child's physical and mental well-being
ORR helps unaccompanied children gain access to legal representation through the legal access project. Through the project, children receive presentations about their rights and individualized legal screenings. The project also builds pro bono legal representation capacity.
Many UC meet conditions that make them eligible for legal relief to remain in the United States. They may qualify for:
- Special visas for children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by the parents or guardian
- Special visas for victims of severe forms of trafficking and other types of crime
- Adjustment of status for those who have a legal resident or citizen family member
History of the UC Program
On March 1, 2003, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Section 462, transferred responsibilities for the care and placement of unaccompanied children (UC) from the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
Since then, ORR has cared for more than 175,000 children, incorporating child welfare values as well as the principles and provisions established by the Flores Agreement in 1997, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorization acts, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2005 and 2008.