On their Own: Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth

By Michelle Chen Aug 14, 2009

When 14 year-old Alfredo Lopez Sanchez arrived in Florida from Guatemala in 2001, he put an end to years of brutal abuse at home. But America was no safe harbor. Traumatized and hindered by a language barrier (he spoke only a Mayan dialect), Sanchez descended into an 18-month odyssey in detention, shuttling alone through several facilities, including one for adult criminal offenders. Despite clear evidence that he had suffered abuse, his asylum claim was initially denied. It was only after bringing the case to a Florida juvenile court that he was granted permission to remain in the country. Sanchez’s story, documented by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, has a relatively happy ending. An unauthorized crossing into the United States is a dangerous feat for anyone, but the experience is all the more terrifying for the thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who have languished in federal custody. Some 7,200 unaccompanied minors enter the country each year. They come as victims of human trafficking, refugees of war or persecution; they may be escaping abusive homes or trying to reunite with parents. And when they get here, the closest thing they have to a guardian is a bureaucracy teeming with countless other desperate individuals. The most common countries of origin for these children are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement. Usually, they can apply for asylum or a visa, or be sent back to their home countries. Federal authorities may try to place them with family, or they could end up in the child welfare system. Though the government has established policies and programs to accommodate these youth, advocates are trying to bring independent oversight to this largely invisible sector of the immigration system. This week, Appleseed, a national network of advocacy groups, launched a project to protect the rights of unaccompanied minors. Advocates seek to ensure that youth have adequate legal representation, are not unfairly repatriated, and if they must be sent back, that they are reunited with family or provided another safe alternative placement. It’s hard to imagine that children in these circumstances are empowered to make informed choices about their immigration cases. Under a policy regime that is dehumanizing by design, family bonds are often the one thing that keeps immigrants sane and hopeful as they wend through the system. When immigrant youth land in an unfamiliar world without family or community connections, they’re alone in every sense of the word. (h/t/ ImmigrationProf Blog) Image: "Cousins Rene and Maria after their failed attempt at crossing the U.S. border." (Courtesy of Children in a No Man’s Land)