Where We Stand: A 20-Year Retrospective Of The Unaccompanied Children’s Program In The United States


Where We Stand: A 20-Year Retrospective of the Unaccompanied Children’s Program in the United States reviews the Unaccompanied Children’s Program from the passage of the Homeland Security Act (HSA) of 2002 until today. It assesses 20 years of legislation, policies, litigation, and, most importantly, the U.S. federal government’s care of unaccompanied migrating children, with a view toward the next steps and improvements for the years ahead.

As described in Chapter One, the HSA transferred responsibility for the care and placement of unaccompanied children from the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). It was a significant step toward providing appropriate care for unaccompanied children. But the statutory direction was weak, and the transfer left gaps, interagency disagreements, and other challenges that plagued the program for years.

One of those challenges was the ongoing Flores litigation, which is introduced in Chapter Two. Another challenge was the lack of clear statutory guidance in major programmatic and operational areas. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) addressed many of those areas and is discussed in Chapter Three. The TVPRA included provisions on the “best interest” standard, transfers of children to ORR, home study and post-release service requirements, access to counsel, and Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status.

Chapter Four highlights two of these areas: home studies/post-release services and SIJ status. Chapter Five looks at the events that followed the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 and brought many Haitian children to the United States as unaccompanied children. Chapter Six follows with information about the first significant surge, or influx, of unaccompanied children into the United States. Chapter Seven discusses ORR’s publication of the interim rule on the prevention of sexual abuse. Finally, Chapter Eight, noting the lessons learned from the past, offers recommendations for the future of the care of unaccompanied children.

Over the years, the involved federal agencies, Congress, and nonprofit and advocacy organizations have worked to make changes as the program continued to have tremendous growth. Although the implementation of the changes was often slow, it was made, and many of those changes have resulted in a better system of care for unaccompanied children. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and The Children’s Village will continue to highlight the experiences of the past, using them to inform our current work with unaccompanied children and building on them to make recommendations for program improvements so that all children can move through their journeys in safety, with their rights protected, and with hope for their futures.



As used in this retrospective, unaccompanied children are children who have fled their home countries and entered the United States without their parents and with no legal immigration status. They flee their home countries for many reasons. In some cases, they are fleeing poverty, violence, or abuse or neglect by a parent. Others are trying to reunite with their parents or other family members living in the United States, leaving behind situations that put them in danger or offer no future. Regardless of the reasons, which are not a subject of this retrospective, these children travel thousands of miles encountering dangers and the risks of smuggling and trafficking that no child should ever have to face. They are among the world’s most vulnerable groups, and for the past 20 years the United States has been attempting to improve their care once they arrive and are in the U.S. federal government’s custody. One of the first steps in improving their care came from the passage of the Homeland Security Act (HSA) of 2002, which transferred the care of unaccompanied children from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).


“In 1985, a 15-year-old unaccompanied girl was housed in the Mardi Gras Motel – a makeshift jail used to house ’detainees.’ She was mixed with adults of both sexes. She shared sleeping quarters with seven other children and five adult women, none of whom were related to her. She was given no right to educational instruction, medical care, recreation, or visitation. Her name was Jenny Lisette Flores, and she was under the care and custody of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Jenny Flores was the lead plaintiff for the Flores settlement agreement originally filed in 1985, and I would call her the Rosa Parks of the civil rights movement for immigrant children,” Peter Schey said. Schey and Carlos Holguín from the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the National Center for Youth Law filed the original Flores v. Reno lawsuit.

At the time of the original filing of the Flores class-action lawsuit, the INS took in approximately 5,000 children annually. The children ranged in age from toddlers to teenagers. Many fled their home countries due to human rights abuses, such as forced marriages, child labor, military recruitment, and armed conflicts. Others fled their homes due to neglect, abuse, or abandonment from a parent or guardian. The responsibility of the INS was to carry out and enforce the country’s immigration laws, including those that pertained to children.

Immigration and Naturalization Service Detention Policy

On September 6, 1984, to manage the influx of unaccompanied children arriving in California, Harold W. Ezell, Commissioner of the Western Region of the INS, implemented a policy for unaccompanied children. It detained immigrant children and limited their release to a parent or legal guardian, except in unusual and extraordinary cases, to a responsible individual who agreed to provide care and be responsible for the welfare and well-being of the child. This policy resulted in the lengthy or indefinite detention of immigrant children. Moreover, the detention conditions during this time were poor: children were strip-searched, held with unrelated adults, and denied educational and recreational opportunities.


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