Unaccompanied Children: Notes from the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Crisis

head shot of Amy Grissom, Regional Emergency Management SpecialistWritten by: Amy Grissom, LMSW, Regional Emergency Management Specialist, ACF Region 6

You may have seen or read recent stories about an estimated 60,000 children crossing the border into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. You may be asking who these children are or how their families could let them travel through multiple countries alone. I asked the same questions before my recent deployment to support the federal agencies responsible for these children. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have the lead role in addressing the immediate needs of unaccompanied children, with FEMA coordinating interdepartmental response efforts. Working side by side with my smart, compassionate federal cousins gave me a new perspective on how vulnerable these children are and how everyday Americans are doing our best to care for them while they are in our custody.

These children are young, separated from their families, and have just survived a hazardous journey: 24 percent are younger than 14 years old with most coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The children tell us they left their countries for the United States to escape violence, abuse, or persecution, find family in the United States, to find work to support themselves, their family or their own children, or were brought by human trafficking rings.

All of the children are vulnerable to human trafficking, violence, exploitation, abuse and illness before and during their journeys. Border Patrol agents do their very best to care for these children before they enter Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody.

By law, it’s ORR’s responsibility to temporarily care for these children soon after they are detained by the Border Patrol, protect them from harm in the least restrictive environment possible, and to help safely reunite them with family or sponsors while immigration proceedings are in progress. As the number of unaccompanied children has risen, ORR has increased the capacity to care for more children and safely reunify them with family faster, resulting in shorter stays in border patrol holding cells than would have been possible otherwise. This includes a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense to open temporary shelters at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland in Texas, Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme in California, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma to care for children with no extenuating medical or mental health needs.

The average stay in the ORR program is 35 days or less. Most children are cared for through a network of state-licensed caregivers who provide medical and mental health care, case management, classroom education, and socialization/recreation activities. They also provide critical family reunification services for safe and timely release to family members or sponsors, including home studies and post reunification services for at-risk children. ORR reunifies about 88 percent of the children with families or other sponsors.

It was a tough deployment. Like everyone supporting this effort, I learned a lot and worked very long hours. However, it was clear that we all have the best interests of the children in mind. I saw many smart ideas in the works to better meet children's needs including data sharing and facility improvements, joint processing centers, and smarter transportation strategies. We do not know when the influx of children will subside, but together we are building a better, faster system to care for them.