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Once a child migrant has crossed the border, what happens next?

BY Larisa Epatko  July 17, 2014 at 1:56 PM EDT
Abraham, 16, left, and Nery, 28, sit at the Casa de Migrante shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on June 17. A surge of immigrants mainly from Central American are coming to the U.S. southern border. Photo by Tochiro Gallegos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Abraham, 16, left, and Nery, 28, sit at the Casa de Migrante shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on June 17. A surge of immigrants mainly from Central American are coming to the U.S. southern border. Photo by Tochiro Gallegos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What happens to child migrants after they turn themselves in at the U.S. border? We take a step-by-step look at their journey once they enter the U.S.

Step One: Arrival

The child turns himself in to a U.S. border patrol agent, phone number of a relative in hand. If he is deemed an “unaccompanied child”, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement takes custody of the child and places him in a shelter. From there, he contacts relatives or a family friend to come get him at their own expense. Before the child is released, the family member undergoes a criminal background check.


The above video looks at the influx of migrants at the U.S. border.

Step Two: Orientation

The child migrants’ family members or other custodians attend an orientation program, offered by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. There, they learn about their legal rights and get a list of pro bono attorneys who can help guide them through family and immigration courts. The EOIR keeps track of the number of immigration court cases, but doesn’t separate out cases involving minors.

The child migrants also might seek asylum in the United States, which doesn’t require going through court. Instead, they present their case at asylum offices under the Department of Homeland Security.

Step Three: Legal consultation

After getting the general information about the U.S. legal system at the orientation session, the migrants can choose to meet with an immigration attorney like Jennifer Girard with Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington’s legal services. Other organizations assisting child migrants include Kids in Need of Defense and Ayuda.

“We give them advice on what type of case we think they might have. After that, they can either remain on our waiting list, we can give them a referral list of private attorneys, or help them seek pro-bono representation, depending on their ability to pay,” said Girard. Even if some of the services are free, the migrants still face a cost of at least $3,000 to go through the entire legal process, plus additional filing fees charged by the U.S. government, she said.

If a child doesn’t have a lawyer, the judge can grant continuances to give him time to get one.


A city in New Mexico is divided over sheltering immigrants awaiting deportation.

Step Four: Applying for a new status

Special immigrant juvenile status is available to children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by one or both parents; asylum is an option for those afraid they will be persecuted at home based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

“Most of the children we see in our consultations are afraid of gang violence if they were to return, and most have experienced some kind of violence already in their home countries” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, said Girard.

A U.N. report ranking countries’ homicide rates in 2013 shows Honduras as first, and El Salvador and Guatemala in the top five. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have arrived at the U.S. southern border since the current fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2013, three-quarters of them from these three countries, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Once receiving asylum status or special immigrant juvenile status, the child can apply for permanent residency in the United States. The children can go through this process whether or not their parents are legally in the United States, Girard said. The entire legal process takes an average of two years.