New Border Policy on Family Units Could Prompt Surge in Unaccompanied Minors

Yesterday, Reuters reporter Julia Edwards Ainsley broke the news that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering a drastic shift in the handling of family units (mother and child) at the border.

Whereas most families are released with a future court date, DHS would detain the mother and place the child in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Those families would have the ability to either contest deportation, or seek asylum.

According to Ainsley’s article, which was based on information from officials briefed on the policy, that department would be responsible for placing the child “in the least restrictive setting until they can be taken into the care of a U.S. relative or state-sponsored guardian.”

The morality of this proposal – separating kids from moms – will surely dominate whatever public discussion there is about it. But in Youth Services Insider‘s opinion, the practical logic of it should be questioned as well.

Here’s the line from Ainsley’s article that really caught the attention of Youth Services Insider:

Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children, said the officials, who have been briefed on the proposal.

Between 2013 and 2016, 200,812 “family units” have made the perilous trek through Mexico to be apprehended at the border, according to DHS statistics. Many are fleeing the rampant violence in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala.

In 2013, 14,855 families arrived at the border. In 2016, it was 77,674. So for anyone of the mind that increases in the “catch and release” population is bad, the impetus for deterrence is there.

But there is, in YSI‘s opinion, a glaring problem with the logic of this policy. And that is the fact that in the same time frame that 200,812 family units arrived at the border, 206,962 children arrived without a parent.

Since the George W. Bush administration, these unaccompanied minors have been referred to the custody of HHS, which then shelters them through contract providers in the United States while determining their placement with relatives or returning them to their home country.

This process is funded under the HHS’ Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, which is overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Administration for Children and Families. With the exception of the few dozen juveniles in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system, these are the only children for whom the federal government has direct custody.

Border arrival statistics, from the Department of Homeland Security

Now, to be sure: some portion of women would think twice about crossing the border if they knew the next thing to happen was a trip to detention while their child was taken into government custody.

But this policy shift will almost certainly drive the number of unaccompanied minors up. You can’t look at the fact that there are more unaccompanied minors than family units and conclude otherwise.

The journey to the border is dangerous for a family unit, but it is much, much more dangerous for a child without parents. You could see a scenario where more moms make most of the trip to protect a child, and then peel off before arriving at the border, leaving the child to present to border officials as unaccompanied.

Two immediate consequences of this policy are clear. First, the number of immigrants detained in U.S. facilities will skyrocket, and that will largely be handled through private prison contracts. The quality of those facilities, and treatment of people in them, has come into question.

The second consequence is that the children taken into HHS custody would almost certainly be treated as clients of UAC, the program with custody over unaccompanied minors. That is the only federal network with providers that can shelter children in a “least restrictive setting,” and the only federal program with expertise in locating viable relative placements.

“I think they will have to” use the UAC providers, one person close to the UAC program told YSI. “There is no other federal capacity.”

The UAC drastically increased its network of providers in 2014 to account for a dramatic uptick in unaccompanied minors. The number had jumped from 12,000 in 2012, to 38,759 by 2013, and then nearly doubled to 68,541 in 2014.

At the time, HHS was practically begging nonprofits and local jurisdictions to contract for beds to accommodate the children. On a conference call with West Coast providers, ORR official Elaine Kelley said simply, “we need beds, now.”

The UAC budget swelled from $268 million in 2013 to $868 million in 2014. In 2015, the number of unaccompanied minors fell to 39,970, but the UAC budget jumped again, to $948 million.

Then, in 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors went up to 59,692. The budget for UAC remained the same: $948 million.

Based on those trends, it’s probably safe to say that there are contract beds available to handle some influx in the UAC population. The UAC budget surged under anticipation that the number of unaccompanied minors might reach as high as 100,000 per year, which never happened.

But the big variable is the question of how many more UAC-classified kids will there be? If half of the mothers who arrived with their kids in 2016 had sent those children as unaccompanied minors, there would have been 98,529 unaccompanied minors last year.

And then there is the longer-term question of what happens to those children. The UAC shelter program is not designed for long-term stays; it’s mostly a way station on the path to connecting minors with relatives who are lawfully in the United States.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1131 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.