Fleeing poverty and gang violence, thousands of Central American children continue to trek alone towards the US-Mexico border hoping for a chance at a new life in the United States.
Since coming into office in January, President Joe Biden has expelled the vast majority of migrant adults and families under a public health order that his predecessor Donald Trump put in place.
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But the Biden administration allows children travelling without a parent or guardian to enter the country to unite with relatives while they pursue their asylum claims, acknowledging that turning them away would endanger their lives.
“All of them are vulnerable,” said Eskinder Negash, president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a non-profit organisation based in Virginia.
“They travel hundreds of miles; they are not coming here because they want to go to Disneyland,” Negash told Al Jazeera. “They come here because they have a well-founded fear of violence in their country, their governments or gangs. If that’s not vulnerable then I don’t know what is.”
But as thousands of children continue to arrive at the border in hopes of getting asylum in the US, experts say once in the country, they face numerous hurdles and a great deal of uncertainty.
According to CBP data, 13,962 children crossed into the US in April, down slightly from the 15,918 who arrived in March. Amid the surge, the conditions in which these children were held – and the length of time they spent in custody – spurred a national debate.
Republicans accused Biden of encouraging parents to send their children and creating a “crisis” at the border. And pictures showing children in crowded makeshift facilities, sleeping on thin mattresses and wrapped in foil blankets, added more pressure on the president, who promised to put in place more humane immigration policies.
But Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has blamed the Trump administration for dismantling facilities and systems that he said would have facilitated the processing of migrants. He also said the rise in arrivals began in April 2020, months before Biden took office.
After a period in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), migrant children are transferred to shelters funded by Health and Human Services (HHS), a federal department, where officials begin the process of locating their relatives.
Negash’s organisation runs one of those shelters. Rinconcito del Sol (“Small corner of sunshine”, in Spanish), houses girls aged 14 to 18 in the US state of Florida. It has a maximum capacity of about 140 children but is currently housing 100 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Negash said many of the girls reported being sexually abused during their journeys to the US, and some have been trafficked. Most are fleeing poverty and gang violence, and have a lack of education.
After they arrive at the Florida facility or any of the about 200 other shelters around the country, children are tested for COVID-19 and given physical and mental health exams. Within an average of 30 days, most children are released to a “sponsor” – a parent, relative or family friend in the US – while they pursue their asylum claims.
In an email, the HHS said a child is united with a family member in the country in more than 80 percent of cases. In more than 40 percent of total cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian. There were 22,264 unaccompanied children in the HHS care on May 2, according to a department factsheet (PDF).
During Senate testimony on May 13, Mayorkas said the length of time children spend in CBP custody had been slashed to an average of 22 hours, significantly lower than the average in March of 133 hours – well beyond the legal limit of 72 hours. “The challenge is not behind us, but the results are dramatic,” he said.
Kathleen Goss is a children’s services specialist at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which runs three shelters for unaccompanied minors up to age 13 in northern California, Dallas, Texas, and Virginia. Each facility holds between 10 and 24 beds.
She said sponsors are interviewed and assessed, and background checks are conducted, as part of a vetting process before a child will be placed in their custody. In some cases, home visits are made to determine if the living arrangements are suitable.
“We want to make sure we know what is the relationship of this adult to the child, and make sure that we have documentation for that,” Goss told Al Jazeera. Another goal is assessing whether sponsors are equipped to ensure the children’s needs are met, and are connected to community resources, such as schools.
“We want to make sure that it will be a safe place for the child that they will not be at risk of abuse, neglect or trafficking, and that they have everything in place and available to accept this child into their home and into their lives to help that child thrive.”
If the prospective sponsor is a child’s parent, the child is generally reunited with them within a week or two of arriving at the shelter, Goss said. If the sponsor is a more distant relative or a family friend, it may take longer for the sponsor to be approved. Children are then flown or driven to their sponsors, or picked up at the shelter.
The final step in their process, Goss said, is a “follow up” phone call 30 days after a child is placed with his or her sponsor to ensure that things are going well. In the event that a child has no relatives in the US and the sponsor is not located or deemed suitable, the child is placed in foster care.
So far this year, the USCCB has processed 300 children through its facilities, Goss added.
‘Cards stacked against’ them
But once they are out of the US government custody and either placed in foster care or with their sponsors, children must still navigate the US immigration system while also getting used to their new lives in the country.
Once they enter the US, migrant children can apply for asylum or other types of immigration protection, such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, often through the help of a lawyer that families must secure themselves or through pro-bono organisations.
Unlike asylum-seeking adults who generally undergo adversarial court proceedings, the cases of unaccompanied minors are heard in family court, and the children are questioned by asylum officers trained to interview minors.
Amid stalled legal proceedings due to COVID-19 restrictions, the process to secure permanent status can take up to four years, lawyers say. If their applications are unsuccessful, the children are deported. According to data compiled by Trac Immigration, a research group affiliated with Syracuse University, more than 35,000 migrant children were deported so far this year.
The children’s new home environments – with relatives who often struggle with housing and food insecurity, or are undocumented – can also pose a challenge, said Elise de Castillo, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, a refugee support group in New York state.
“Immigrant children become part of families that they were never a part of before, or are placed with parents who have been up until that point parents in name only,” de Castillo told Al Jazeera. “When you are doing that at the age of 14 or 15, when parenting is a challenge universally, and then adding this specific dynamic twist, it becomes even harder.”
Many children – especially teenagers – also face significant difficulties in adjusting to their new schools. “Unaccompanied minors are often children whose education has been interrupted and they are placed in academic environments where they are being educated in a second language or a language that they don’t speak,” de Castillo said.
“When a child arrives here, the cards are often stacked against their success.”