Undocumented children are crossing the US border alone in increasing numbers
March 26, 2013

They miss their parents, whom they haven’t seen in years. Or they’re escaping poverty and neglect, or violence. So the kids come across the border by themselves—and their numbers are increasing, even as illegal immigration trends down or stays flat.

In 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 8,041 unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border; in 2012, that number was 24,481.

A little under half, about 10,500 young border crossers, came from Mexico in 2012. Most Mexican kids are quickly repatriated, says Elizabeth G. Kennedy, a researcher and social scientist at San Diego State University. But the remainder, almost 14,000 unaccompanied minors in 2012 alone, are children predominantly from increasingly violent Central American countries.

The journey north is harrowing, says Kennedy, who recently published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailing the fragile mental states of young border crossers. On the trains and trails, some are raped, drugged, maimed, and robbed, she says. The lucky ones arrive in planes and then are nabbed by border authorities at the airport.

After apprehension by the Department of Homeland Security, all undocumented kid border crossers who don’t come from Mexico or Canada are shipped over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in the Department of Health and Human Services. There they’re resettled or reunited with relatives or guardians, all the while facing deportation proceedings in immigration court—and more than 50 percent do not have lawyers.

Miguel Garcia was one such kid. He fled Guatemala City, he tells The Daily Beast, after the notorious M18 gang tried to recruit him when he played soccer. When he declined, the gang shot his brother, mistaking him for Garcia. The brother remained permanently wounded and now has difficulty walking. The gang continued to threaten the Garcia family, demanding enormous sums of money for the privilege of living in the neighborhood. At the time, Miguel Garcia was 16 years old. He figured if he left Guatemala, M18 would leave him and his family alone.

After a brutal journey through Mexico, he was apprehended near the border in Texas. He spent a few weeks at an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility, then was turned over to his uncle in California. Garcia’s uncle, Luis, cleans swimming pools for a living and could not afford the $5,000 that private lawyers wanted to take the case.

The plight of a growing number of kids like Garcia is finally being discussed on Capitol Hill. At a March 6 Senate hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder if the Justice Department might take over from the Department of Health and Human Services the responsibility of finding lawyers for the children.

Holder seemed willing but pointed out that DOJ needed extra funding to take on the responsibility. “It is inexcusable that young kids … have immigration decisions made on their behalf, against them, whatever, and they’re not represented by counsel,” he said.

“That’s not who we are as a nation,” Holder added. “It is not the way in which we do things.”

Franken brought up the topic again at a second Senate hearing March 18, though no action has been formally proposed.

Kids without lawyers often don’t know “what’s going on” with their immigration cases, says Kennedy.

In 2008, the Office of Refugee Resettlement oversaw 6,658 unaccompanied undocumented children; by 2012, the number had soared to 13,625 kids. This year is on track for a record—so far, 6,965 unaccompanied border crossers have arrived at the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s doorstep.

Through paid contractors, the kids are housed, counseled, educated, and reunited, if possible, with their parents or guardians. Paradoxically, many of the children are likely eligible to stay in the United States via asylum, special visas, or green cards.