E.g., 12/08/2023
E.g., 12/08/2023
Unaccompanied Child Migration to the United States: The Tension between Protection and Prevention

Between 2011 and 2014, the number of Central American unaccompanied children (UACs) and "family units"—parents traveling with young children—who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border increased rapidly, reaching a peak of 137,000 in fiscal year 2014. While many of these migrants have valid claims for asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief, others are chiefly driven by economic concerns and a desire to reconnect with family members. This mixed flow has challenged the capacity of the United States to carry out its core immigration functions of preventing the admission of unauthorized immigrants while also providing protection to those who cannot be safely returned to their home countries.

Media coverage of Central American arrivals in 2014 portrayed their entry as a failure of border security, but the actual policy failures were in the processing and adjudication of claims for relief from child migrants presenting in a mixed migration flow of humanitarian and irregular migrants. Inadequate judicial and legal resources left some unaccompanied children waiting two years or more for a hearing before an immigration judge. Such delays amounted to a de facto policy of open admission for children and families. Furthermore, the Obama administration's responses to the rising Central American flows, including greater law enforcement resources at the border, expanded detention facilities, and the establishment of dedication child and family immigration court dockets, focused exclusively on immediate needs rather than longer-term solutions and they failed either to adequately protect vulnerable immigrants or to prevent future unauthorized flows.

This report explains the shifting patterns of Central American migration between 2011 and 2014, analyzes the root of the policy challenges posed by these flows, and outlines U.S. and regional policy responses to address the crisis. It also makes recommendations on policies that advance both critical protection and enforcement goals in situations of complex, mixed flows, and provides additional policies that the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras might adopt to better manage child and family migration pressures today and in the future.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Unaccompanied Child Migration from Central America to the United States

III. U.S. Enforcement and Protection Policies in Practice

A. Enforcement Policies

B. Protection Policies

C. Immigration Adjudication

D. Detention

E. Special Rules for Families and Children

IV. Central Americans Arriving at the U.S. Border: Why the Recent Surge?

A. Structural Push and Pull Factors

B. Limits and Unintended Consequences of U.S. Immigration Policy

C. Immigrant Smugglers and Social Networks

V. Mixed Flows: Challenges and Recent Responses

A. Policy Challenges

B. Political Challenges

C. The Policy Response

VI. Discussion and Recommendations

A. Attacking the Drivers of Migration

B. Enforcement and Adjudication in the Region

C. Enforcement and Adjudication in the United States

D. Integration/Reintegration

VII. Conclusion