On July 8, 2014, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion dollars in emergency funding in an effort to address the overwhelming number of young, unaccompanied children arriving at the United States’ Southern border with Mexico.

These young children, numbering in the tens of thousands, are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, and are primarily fleeing drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), endemic poverty and domestic violence.  Why now and why so many?  And what can United States immigration authorities do about it?  These are some of the difficult and complex questions which Congress, President Obama and Department of Homeland Security officials are trying to answer.

So far this fiscal year (October 1, 2013 – present), U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have detained over 50,000 unaccompanied minors at the border.  Of these, CBP says 29% of the children came from Guatemala, 24% of the children fled Honduras, 23% from Mexico, and 22% from El Salvador.  In other words, 97% of the unaccompanied children stopped at the border were from these four countries.

When children – or anyone else for that matter – arrives at the border and expresses a fear of returning to their home country, both U.S. and international law requires that they be screened to determine if they qualify for protection as refugees.  The primary definition of refugee comes from the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.  According to U.S. law, a refugee is basically any person who is outside his/her home country and was either persecuted in the past or has a well founded fear of persecution in the future, on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

In addition to refugee status, unaccompanied children who have been abandoned by their parents and who have been made a ward of a Juvenile Court in the United States can sometimes qualify for special immigrant juvenile status, which is a legal status that allows the children to remain legally in the United States and qualify for permanent residence (green card).

Apart from determining if these children are in need of protection, immigration officials must house and care for them, or release them to a responsible family member or adult while awaiting the conclusion of the administrative process.  Because of the backlogs and lack of resources, it can sometimes take years for a final decision to be made whether a child is granted protection in the United States or deported to the child’s home country.

To learn more about this ongoing humanitarian crisis, please read:

Children on the Run  —  UNHCR Report on Children Fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador

Unaccompanied Alien Children  — Overview from Congressional Research Service

Designation of Temporary Immigration Judges  — Official Announcement