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Beyond the Surge: Most Unaccompanied Minors Still Await Immigration Court Hearings, Find Differing Degrees of Acceptance in U.S. Schools

Press Release
Thursday, October 15, 2015

Beyond the Surge: Most Unaccompanied Minors Still Await Immigration Court Hearings, Find Differing Degrees of Acceptance in U.S. Schools

WASHINGTON – Despite creation of a priority docket for dealing with the surge in arrivals of unaccompanied children from Central America, the U.S. immigration court system has yet to take up most of their cases. And even in cases where immigration judges provide some form of immigration relief, the vast majority of minors remain in unauthorized status, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) issue brief finds.

The brief, Unaccompanied Child Migrants in U.S. Communities, Immigration Court, and Schools, examines refugee resettlement data, immigration court data and policies adopted by individual school districts to offer a portrait of where unaccompanied minors are settling, how they are faring in immigration courts, what types of services are available to them and how schools are adapting to their arrival.

More than 102,000 unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 1, 2013 and August 31, 2015. While steadily increasing numbers had been arriving at the border for years, the surge that began in early 2014 prompted widespread attention after systems responsible for the processing and care of these children were briefly overwhelmed.

To manage the surge in cases hitting an already overburdened immigration court system, the Justice Department in mid-2014 implemented a priority docket to move unaccompanied minors ahead of other cases. Despite that priority, 61 percent of unaccompanied minor cases initiated in fiscal year (FY) 2014 remained unresolved as of August 31. Meanwhile, the backlog for other types of cases has increased significantly—and the average wait time for a deportation hearing is now 1,071 days for an adult.

A review of immigration court data shows that access to counsel, which is not mandated or typically provided for these children, plays a huge role in case outcomes: 90 percent of unrepresented children were ordered deported, a ruling that occurred for just 18 percent of those with representation.

Of those who appear for their immigration hearings, 78 percent receive some form of immigration relief. But because the vast majority of these cases—97 percent—receives informal relief (such as administrative closure of the case) that does not confer a simultaneous grant of immigration status, they often remain unauthorized. Meanwhile, about one in six children fail to appear at an immigration hearing, and automatically are ordered removed in absentia. These in absentia removal orders usually go unexecuted. Thus, although 13,204 minors were ordered removed in FY 2014, just 1,863 were actually deported.

“Most cases are still pending in the courts, while the children wait in the United States in unauthorized status. For those cases that have been resolved, the ones that ended in an order of deportation have largely been unexecuted; and of those ending in some form of relief, many children have not received lawful immigration status,” writes author Sarah Pierce, an MPI research assistant. “The end result is similar: The children become more fully settled in the United States—while remaining unauthorized.”

While specific school enrollment data are unavailable and it is not possible to map the policies that every school has put in place to deal with child migrants, the brief offers anecdotal evidence that school districts have had disparate reactions to the influx of new students and associated costs. Some have created specialized programs to work with the newcomers, while others have come to different answers whether older students should be enrolled in K-12 classes or adult education and yet others have pushed back against their enrollment entirely.

Because they are in unauthorized status, unaccompanied migrants are eligible for few public services other than public education. For services such as health care or legal representation, unaccompanied children must depend on proactive service providers, localities, states or special federal programs that create services to meet their specific requirements. The result is a patchwork of services that fails to address many of the extensive needs of this vulnerable population.

The brief recommends that the Office of Refugee Resettlement establish a system for collecting long-term data on child migrants, including the outcomes of their immigration proceedings and their experiences in U.S. communities. It also recommends that ORR contact communities and school districts before releasing unaccompanied minors to the care of relatives or guardians already in the United States, giving them time to plan and allocate resources appropriately. 

The issue brief can be read at: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/unaccompanied-child-migrants-us-communities-immigration-court-and-schools.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more, visit www.migrationpolicy.org.