Unaccompanied Alien Children Placed in Programs in New York: FAQ
Q1: Who are Unaccompanied Alien Children?
A1: “Unaccompanied Minors” is the term preferred by nonprofits and advocates when referring to those who the federal government has termed “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” or “UAC,” for short. Unaccompanied minors are children and youth under the age of 18 who have arrived in the United States primarily from Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua – without documentation or legal status and who are not accompanied by an adult. Many come seeking asylum from horrific violence in their home countries, and were sent by family, to family – that is, a parent or other relative caretaker in a country outside of the United States sent the youth to live with a parent or another family member or close family friend already living in the United States. The youth are often told to present themselves to officials at the border (not to try to “sneak in”) and are given contact information for their US-domiciled relative. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), under the Department of Health and Human Services, takes responsibility for these youth and places them in ORR-funded programs around the country.
Q2: What about the children separated from their parents at the border?
A2: These are a new, different group of children that have been added to the traditional UAC programs under the “Zero Tolerance” policies enacted in early 2018. While the immigration process is dangerous and traumatic for all children, those who are removed from their parents under Zero Tolerance are frequently younger and generally were not prepared for separation, having arrived at the border in the company of family members, unlike the usual unaccompanied minors who were intentionally sent or fled poverty and gang violence alone. Children separated from their parents were also placed in the same ORR-funded programs around the country by ORR.
Q3: Who is running these ORR-funded programs in New York?
A3: Because the needs of the traditional unaccompanied minors are similar to those of children in foster care, it’s not surprising that non-profit agencies that operate foster care programs were chosen by ORR to provide care for unaccompanied minors. These are agencies that have child and family-oriented missions and extensive experience in serving children. The agencies are licensed by New York State and their programs are subject to various forms of oversight, depending on which state/city/county agencies are funding their programs, including but not limited to case record reviews, site inspections, and staff background checks. Some of these agencies have provided these ORR services for more than ten years and have helped connect thousands of unaccompanied youth with relatives in the US.
Q4: Why is there so much secrecy around these children?
A4: These children and youth are often seeking asylum and fleeing poverty and gang violence by coming to the United States. Since gangs and human traffickers can have a multi-national presence and the ORR programs are charged with keeping them safe until they are reunited with a parent or other family member, they take measures to keep the children’s identities confidential. This can include keeping the children indoors when crowds or media are gathered outside facilities or shielding their faces from cameras. The privacy concerns for these children pre-date the current administration and have been in place since these programs began.
Q5: Are Unaccompanied Minors (UAC) in foster care? Can they be adopted?
A5: ORR programs are separate from states’ child welfare systems. While children may be placed at an ORR program run by an agency that also provides foster care, and the setting may be a “foster home” setting, these children are not in “foster care” as we generally refer to it. To move a child from federal ORR oversight to state foster care, there needs to be an allegation that a child was abused or neglected by a relative caretaker; an investigation conducted, ending with a finding that the alleged maltreatment did, in fact, occur; and a ruling by a NYS Family Court judge that the child would not be safe remaining in the relative’s care and needs to be placed in foster care.
In the many years ORR-placed youth have been in New York agencies’ programs, this has happened very rarely. Because these children do not enter state foster care, they are not subject to the federal child welfare Adoption and Safe Families Act timelines dictating when parental rights should be terminated and the child freed for adoption. Additionally, Family Court judges and state foster care programs have discretion and can decide termination of parental rights would not be appropriate in cases where a parent is unable to defend his or her parental rights due to deportation or other barriers. To sum up, very few unaccompanied minors move to state foster care and even fewer are legally freed for adoption because they have a parent or family member in this country willing to care for them.
Q6: Aren’t these programs supporting Zero Tolerance policies by accepting these children?
A6: All of the agencies providing these services in New York State emphatically believe children belong with their parents and should not be separated from their parents unless the children’s safety is at risk because of parental maltreatment. Nonprofit agencies providing UAC services for ORR were not advised of the zero-tolerance policy and were not given notice that they would be receiving children that were removed from their parents at the border. When ORR refers new children, programs are usually only told the number of children to expect and their genders, and the process does not allow for programs to review histories or reject referrals. The only recourse agencies have is to terminate their ORR programs altogether. Since the overwhelming majority of children referred to these programs are still the traditional UAC youth crossing by themselves, and since the conditions at the shelters near the border appear to be so poor, the agencies in New York continued their UAC programs and redoubled their efforts to connect both traditional and zero tolerance children with family members. In addition, because of the massive public outcry against the Zero Tolerance Policy of separating children from their parent, this separation has stopped. If these agencies were unwilling to serve these children, many would likely be housed in facilities and states far from their families. Many children sent to New York have families in the Tri-State area.
Q7: What do UAC programs do?
A7: The programs are charged with providing a temporary residence for youth (either with licensed families or in group settings), meeting the youth’s immediate needs (clothing, medical care, etc.) and reunifying the children with families or qualified sponsors. The youth are supervised by vetted and trained adults, receive education in common school subjects (including English as a Second Language) and are provided age-appropriate recreational activities. They are screened by clinical staff for medical and psychological needs, including a trauma assessment, and are given health services including common immunizations and mental health services including trauma-informed therapy.
Q8: Where do the children go when they leave the program?
A8: In the case of the traditional UAC (youth who crossed the border without their parents), casework staff work with ORR field staff to identify sponsors. These sponsors must be family members or close, long-term family friends who may be able to take custody of the child. Agency staff help locate these potential sponsors (often pre-identified by the youth or sending family member), explain the sponsorship process and responsibilities, and help them complete background check and necessary paperwork. The process includes fingerprinting, criminal database checks, and verification of immigration status.
The goal is for ORR placements to be short-term, moving the child out of the program and to his or her sponsor as quickly as possible, given the processes needed to ensure child safety. In prior years, a stay in an ORR program was about 30-45 days; the time to identify and process sponsors has lengthened this year and stays are averaging about two months because the federal government has increased the background check requirements. Additionally, this year agencies are finding potential sponsors are more cautious about agreeing to a background check for fear of attracting the attention of immigration officers to them or those with whom they live. For the small number of youth for whom no appropriate sponsors can be identified, some agencies provide long-term ORR foster care. As stated above, this is not the same as the state foster care system and these children are not placed for adoption.
Agencies also work with ORR and child advocates to reunite separated children (those children in ORR programs because they were separated under the “zero tolerance policy”) with their parents as quickly as possible. Agencies have been concurrently planning for separated children – finding relative sponsors and helping find parents – to try to minimize trauma to children and connect them to their kin (whether parent or other) expeditiously. However, the agencies cannot move or discharge a child on their own; only ORR has this decision-making power.
Q9: What can I do to help?
A9: The needs of these programs can change day to day, but common long-term program needs can include bilingual clinical and educational staff; volunteer attorneys or law students with knowledge of immigration law; and foster parents, especially bilingual adults. For the most part, ORR programs provide for children’s material needs and do not always have space to accept and store in-kind donations (e.g., stuffed animals, books, clothing).