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News // Family Reunification

FAQ: What Is Happening with Immigrant Children at the Southern Border?

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LIRS Staff

March 24, 2021

Since April 2020, we have seen steady increases of families and children arriving at our southern border seeking protection from violence and environmental disasters that have ravaged Central America and beyond. Most acutely, there has been a significant increase in the number of children arriving without a parent or guardian. While current policy generally does not permit migrants from entering the U.S. through the southern border, there is an exception for “unaccompanied children” and they are supposed to receive certain protections and care under the law. The influx of children has resulted in hundreds of children arriving in the U.S. per day, and thousands in Customs and Border Protection custody.

Who are the children at the border?

The children are largely from the Northern Triangle, which includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many come to the United States without a parent or guardian in search of safety and range in age, with some children as young as six or seven years old. A majority of the children (approximately 85-90 percent) have a parent or guardian in the United States and are seeking refuge and reunification with their families.

Other children are coming to the United States with their families, but they are currently being expelled immediately under Title 42, a Trump administration-era public health directive.

Why are they coming now?

Historically, migration ebbs and flows. Several factors have coalesced in 2020 and early 2021 to create an emergency situation requiring children to seek safety outside of their home country, including:

  • Community violence
  • Political unrest and corruption
  • Climate crises, including hurricanes Eta and Iota
  • Pandemic-related challenges

They are, in many cases, fleeing for their lives. Under the Trump administration, the children were being immediately expelled without due process. Now, their safety is the priority.

What happens when unaccompanied children arrive in the U.S.?

By law, children are supposed to receive certain protection and care. When children arrive on their own, they are first processed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and transferred as quickly as possible to the Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — an agency with child welfare expertise.

Once in their custody, ORR cares for the children through its network of providers, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), until they can be safely united with their vetted sponsor. Typically, this can take a few weeks, because it takes time to vet sponsors and ensure that the home will be a safe environment for children.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement prioritizes environments that consider the best interests of the children – where they have access to case managers, medical care, and legal services providers. At Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, our model recognizes these children are not just in our custody, but in our care, and we train and support foster care parents to care for children in family-like settings until they can be united with their sponsor.

What is different about what’s happening now?

Problems can arise when the ORR network is at full capacity, as it currently is due to pandemic constraints and necessary compliance with public health guidelines. When this is the case, children can’t be transferred from CBP to ORR custody quickly, and instead spend prolonged periods in CBP facilities, which were never designed to care for children.

Additionally, the past four years under the Trump administration significantly depleted our immigration infrastructure, and specifically the capacity to care for children. It takes time to rebuild. While we are working as quickly as possible, there are certain legal requirements that must be met.

What are the temporary shelters?

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, and faith-based partners have opened temporary influx facilities to move children out of CBP detention. These temporary facilities provide children with a safe place to sleep, eat, tend to personal hygiene, and offer activities and certain supports while ORR builds its licensed bed capacity. Because these facilities are temporary in nature, they are not licensed.

As LIRS has previously testified to before Congress, facilities like Homestead present significant risks to the care of children.

What is LIRS doing to help?

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is urgently working with our network of service partners, community groups, and volunteers to address the critical needs of these children and work to reunite them with a family member here in the United States.

How can I help?

There are a number of actions supporters can take to help unaccompanied children at the border. We invite you to support this work however you can – through donations, prayers, advocacy, or even applying to become a foster parent. We ask, too, that you work with us to promote compassion, empathy, and education. Children at the border, like all children, deserve love, safety, and support, and we ask you to join us in celebrating their safety and welcoming them into our country and our community. We invite you to download our Hope for the Southern Border Toolkit, which shares more about how you can get involved.

Download the Toolkit

Please note: We will continue to update this resource as more information becomes available. We invite you to check back for the latest information.

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