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Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions

Published: July 9, 2018

ACF's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides funding and oversight to state-licensed shelters throughout the United States for children referred to ORR by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These children are known as unaccompanied alien children (UAC). They include both children who enter the country without their parent or legal guardian and children who for other reasons have been separated from their parent or legal guardian.

In recent days, there has been a great deal of misinformation about the UAC program. This misinformation and the intentional perpetuation of it is a disservice to the hundreds of caseworkers and care providers who are deeply committed to the quality care and safe and speedy placement of the childrent with appropriate sponsors. Below are answers to frequently asked questions from community members and media regarding the UAC program.

Q: Why is HHS caring for children separated from their parents?

A: When a child who has entered the country illegally and is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, he or she is considered an unaccompanied alien child, and by law must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for care and custody.

HHS is legally required to provide care for all children until they are released to a suitable sponsor, almost always a parent or close relative, while they await immigration proceedings. These children can also leave HHS care if they return to their home countries, achieve 18 years of age, or gain legal immigration status. The same procedure applies for children who have been separated from parents due to criminality or jeopardy, or when the parent is detained to await trial or convicted of a criminal offense and must serve time in federal custody.

Q: Is there a system for keeping parents and children connected if they are separated for immigration proceedings?

A: Yes. When adults and minors are apprehended by immigration authorities, their information is entered into government databases by which their cases can be tracked.

HHS has an electronic portal through which we track every child in our care—currently, more than 11,800 minors, including both children separated from their parents and those who arrived alone.

All minors in HHS care are assigned case managers. In the circumstance of children whose parents are in federal custody, the case managers are in contact with the parents’ ICE case managers, ICE agents, and other federal law enforcement officials in order to verify their relationship and put the parents and children in communication. U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers

and other resource staff have been deployed to DHS facilities to assist parents in communicating with their children.

HHS has long provided resources for parents, including those in DHS custody, to communicate with their children in HHS care. Parents or guardians attempting to determine if their child is in HHS care should contact the ORR National Call Center (www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/orr-national-call-center) at 1-800-203-7001, or via email at information@ORRNCC.com. Personal information will be collected and sent to the HHS-funded facility where the minor is located. The ORR National Call Center has numerous resources available for children, parents, guardians, and sponsors.

Q: Is HHS confident that this large number of children and parents, dispersed across the country, can be connected and reunited?

A: Yes. The UAC program has a wealth of experience in connecting the unaccompanied minors in its care to their parents and discharging them to parents, other family members, or other suitable sponsors since 2003, and has developed resources and systems for doing so. This has included communication and reunification with parents across the United States and around the world.

Q: What are the procedures for children separated from their parents to communicate with each other?

A: Within 24 hours of arrival, minors are given the opportunity to communicate with a verified parent, guardian or relative living in or outside the United States. Every effort is made to ensure minors can communicate (via telephone or video) at least twice per week. This communication is paid for by HHS.

Safety precautions are in place to ensure that an adult wishing to communicate with a minor is a family member or potential sponsor. Attorneys representing minors have unlimited telephone access and the minor may speak to other appropriate stakeholders, such as their consulate, case coordinator or child advocate.

Q: Do children in HHS care have access to lawyers?

A: Yes. HHS fulfills all requirements of the Flores settlement agreement and informs all minors of their rights by providing a Legal Resources Guide, Know Your Rights presentations, and HHS-funded legal services.

Q: How can very young children or children who are non-verbal be reunified with their parents?

A: This challenge is not new for ORR, which has worked since 2003 to discharge the unaccompanied alien children in its care to parents, other relatives or other suitable sponsors. ORR

has procedures and systems for identifying the parents of very young children and children who are non-verbal.

Q: What kind of conditions do children in HHS-funded facilities experience?

A: UAC shelters provide housing, nutrition, physical and mental healthcare, educational services, and recreational activities such as television and sports. They provide an environment on par with facilities in the child welfare system that house American children.

The facilities are operated by nonprofit grantees that are certified by state authorities responsible for regulating such facilities housing children.

Children using phones Facility
Classroom Beds

Q: What kind of access have the media been given to the HHS-funded facilities?

A: More than 50 separate media outlets have toured HHS-funded UAC facilities. There are restrictions on what kind of media coverage is possible, due to the need for privacy regarding children in our care.

HHS is committed to transparency around our work with children, and has also made available photos and video of facilities housing boys and girls taken recently and dating back to 2016, demonstrating continuity of care across administrations.

Q: What kind of access have members of Congress and local officials been given to the HHS-funded facilities?

A: More than 70 members of Congress and more than 60 congressional staff members toured HHS-funded UAC facilities in June 2018. HHS is working with the relevant authorities in Congress to regularly schedule more tours, based on the availability of the facilities and prioritizing the safety and well-being of the children in our care.

Q: Where are HHS-funded UAC facilities located? Are there any near me?

A: HHS currently operates a network of more than 100 shelters in 17 states and has a proven track record of accountability and transparency for program operations, as well as being a good neighbor in the communities where shelters are located. HHS policy is to not publish or publicize the addresses of shelters to protect the privacy and security of the children and minimize disruption of the facilities.

Q: Does HHS have the capacity to care for an increasing number of children?

A: The UAC program has expanded and contracted over the years, driven by a variety of factors. It is designed to work in this way, and HHS has developed processes for bringing both permanent and semi-permanent UAC housing capacity online as needed. HHS has a bed capacity framework with grant and contract mechanisms that allow for a sufficient base number of standard beds, with the ability to quickly add temporary beds, which provides the capability to accommodate changing flows.

HHS continues to update its bed capacity planning to account for the most recently available data, including information from interagency partners, to leverage available funds to be prepared for changing needs.

Given the numbers of unaccompanied alien children referred to its care since Oct. 1, 2017, HHS has increased the number of shelter beds from about 6,500 to about 13,000 beds.  To build this capacity HHS re-opened a temporary emergency influx shelter for UAC in Homestead, Florida and established a new temporary emergency influx shelter in Tornillo, Texas.

Q. How are cheek swabs being performed?

A. ORR grantees are swabbing the cheeks of the children in ORR custody, while DHS personnel or the field teams deployed by HHS are swabbing the cheeks of the purported parents in ICE custody. The cheek swabs are then sent to a third-party laboratory services provider to complete the DNA testing. The results are then transmitted electronically to the Incident Management Team at the SOC, which shares them with the grantees. HHS will use the results only for verifying parentage.

Q. What happens to results after reunification?

A. HHS is using DNA testing – a practice normally used by ORR when regular documentation is not available – to expedite verification of parentage and comply with the court’s artificial deadlines. A DNA test is done only when there is a specific purported parent-child relationship that needs to be validated. The DNA sample is only compared to the parent that is believed to be linked to the child.  HHS has instructed the testing contractor to destroy both the DNA swabs and the results after verification is complete.

Q. Has ORR used DNA tests before?

A. Yes, it is done routinely in cases where verified documents are unavailable.

Q. Why doesn’t HHS just quickly find family members, including parents, and immediately unify or re-unify?

A. We are determined to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the children in our custody after they leave our care. To do so, we are working with other federal agencies to perform background checks on purported parents. HHS staff (Federal Field Specialists on the ground) together with dedicated staff at grantees’ shelters work hard to determine suitability and identity to help to improve the chances that the minor will be well-taken care of when they leave HHS care.

Q. How does HHS go about confirming the identity of parents, and are there adults in the past year fraudulently claiming to be parents?

A. Reunification with most parents is in the best interest of the child, but proper and careful vetting for child safety is essential. Historically, HHS provided the care of a child in our custody and then performed criminal background checks on a sponsor and other adults in their household, ensured appropriate living arrangements, and confirmed the sponsor’s ability to care for a child.

In light of the recent district court ruling, new efforts have had to be made to specifically determine whether a child was separated from a parent at the border and gather additional information about the purported parent. 

Some parents have been found unsuitable for reunification because of issues discovered during a criminal background check, including child cruelty, child smuggling, narcotics crimes, robbery convictions, and a warrant for murder.

Q: How do ORR permanent shelters affect our community?

A: The impact on the local community is minimal. Shelters are operated by nonprofit organizations. About half of our shelters care for fewer than 50 unaccompanied alien children. These shelters are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located.

ORR pays for and provides all services for the children while they are in care at a shelter. This includes food, clothing, education, medical screening and any needed medical care to the children. Children spend fewer than 57 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community. They remain under staff supervision at all times.

Q: Do these children pose a health risk?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that the children arriving at U.S. borders pose little risk of spreading infectious diseases to the general public.

Countries in Central America, where most of the unaccompanied alien children are from (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras), have childhood vaccination programs, and most children have received some childhood vaccines. However, they may not have received a few vaccines, such as chickenpox, influenza and pneumococcal vaccines. As a precaution, ORR is providing vaccinations to all children who do not have documentation of previous valid doses of vaccine.

Children receive an initial screening for visible and obvious health issues (for example: lice, rashes, diarrhea and cough) when they first arrive at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. Onsite medical staff are available at CBP facilities to provide support, and referrals are made to a local emergency room for additional care, if needed. Children must be considered fit to travel before they are moved from the border patrol station to an ORR shelter.

Children receive additional, more thorough medical screening and vaccinations at ORR shelter facilities. If children are found to have certain communicable diseases, they are separated from other children and treated as needed. The cost of medical care for the children while they are in ORR custody is paid by the federal government.

Q: Are communities safe with these kids in it? There are rumors that some kids are gang members.

A: Many of these children are fleeing violent situations in their home country and choose to leave rather than join a gang. They endure a long and dangerous journey to reach the border. When they are placed in a standard shelter, they are, as a rule, relieved to be in a safe and caring environment where they can wait for a sponsor to arrive to take custody.

ORR works in close coordination with local officials on security and safety of the children and the community.  These children do not attend local schools while in ORR care. The impact of these shelters on the local community is minimal.  Children spend 57 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community while in HHS custody. They remain under staff supervision at all times.

Q: How can individuals or communities help?

A: Members of the public have expressed interest in donating or volunteering to help unaccompanied alien children. The federal agencies supporting these facilities are unable to accept donations or volunteers to assist the unaccompanied children program. However, there are several voluntary, community, faith-based, or international organizations assisting unaccompanied children. You can find resources and contacts in your state at the following online address:

www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/state-programs-annual-overview

Q: How much does it cost to take care of the unaccompanied alien children?

A: The FY 18 appropriation for this program is $1.3 billion.

Q: Can I foster or adopt one or more of the unaccompanied alien children?

A: We have grantees in various parts of the United States who care for a small number of unaccompanied alien children in foster homes, and many providers are looking to expand their number of foster parents, particularly ones who are bilingual. ORR requires that all foster care parents be fully licensed by their state. If you are not already licensed, you could begin by contacting one of the foster care providers who care for unaccompanied alien children, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service who have provided foster care to unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children for many years:

Q: Are children who arrived as unaccompanied alien children ever enrolled in local schools?

A: ORR works in close coordination with local officials on security and safety of the children and the community.  These children do not attend local schools while in ORR care. The impact of these shelters on the local community is minimal.  Children spend 57 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community while in HHS custody. They remain under staff supervision at all times.

When UAC are released to an appropriate sponsor, while awaiting immigration proceedings, they have a right – just like other children living in their community – to enroll in local schools regardless of their or their sponsors’ actual or perceived immigration or citizenship status. State laws also require children to attend school up to a certain age. A small number of children in HHS custody are placed in long-term foster care instead of being released to a sponsor. These children do enroll in public school in the community where their foster care is located. For more information about local educational agencies and unaccompanied alien children, please visit:www.ed.gov/unaccompaniedchildren


ORR/ Division of Children Services/Unaccompanied Alien Children's Services program provides unaccompanied alien children (UAC) with a safe and appropriate environment as well as client-focused highest quality of care to maximize the children’s opportunities for success both while in care, and upon discharge from the program to sponsors in the U.S. or return to home country.

Last Reviewed: July 19, 2018