The Flow of Unaccompanied Children Through the Immigration System: A Resource for Practioners, Polic

Vera Institute of Justice. 2012. Center on Immigration and Justice. USA.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are an extremely vulnerable popu­lation. Whether they enter the United States by themselves, fall prey to smugglers or traffickers, or find themselves in government custody facing deportation after many years of living in the country, they are often forced to navigate the complex immigration enforcement system without a lawyer. The thousands of children who encounter this system annually face a bewildering number of obstacles, as do the service providers whose job it is to assist them.


Unaccompanied children placed in immigration proceedings in the United States are likely to encounter a com­plex web of policies and practices, numerous government agencies—each acting in accordance with a different mission and objective—and a legal process that often takes years to resolve.

Since 2005, the Vera Institute of Justice has administered the Unaccompanied Children Program, which provides access to legal services for people who are younger than 18, have no lawful immigration status, and have no par­ent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and custody. The program is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services re­sponsible for these children after apprehension and referral by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Vera’s work on this project has given it unique access to a national network of legal services providers with ex­pertise in representing unaccompanied children, as well as to quantitative and qualitative information about un­accompanied children from these providers and from ORR. This report is based on project staff’s analysis of this material and their review of the most recent information about this population, including documents published by government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. It aims to demystify a sometimes daunting process by providing a thorough overview of the system—from the children’s point of apprehension by immigration enforce­ment authorities to their release from government custody and the end of their immigration cases—and to clearly describe the maze of government agencies, actors, and policies.

Key system characteristics revealed in the course of this analysis include:

>>Up to 15 percent of unaccompanied children enter the system as a result of being apprehended “internally” in the United States (as opposed to at a port of entry).

>>Most children referred by DHS to ORR (80 percent) are placed in a shelter setting—the least restrictive type of placement available within the ORR system.

>>Most children (75 percent) remain in ORR custody for one week to four months, with an average stay of 61 days.

>>At least 65 percent of children admitted to ORR custody are ultimately placed with a sponsor living in the United States.

>>Approximately 40 percent of children admitted into ORR custody are identified as eligible for a form of legal relief from removal (such as asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, or visas for victims of crime or trafficking).

>>Fewer than 1 percent of children are granted relief from removal during their stay in ORR custody.

Although this publication provides a comprehensive system overview, relatively little is known about the experi­ences of children in the system, and additional empirical research is needed. This report is intended as a resource to assist practitioners, policy makers, and researchers in their work with unaccompanied children, and to help people in the field make strides toward improving the multilayered immigration process faced by thousands of children annually.


The U.S. legal system affecting unaccompanied children—those younger than 18 without lawful immigration status who have no parent or legal guardian in the country available to provide care and custody—is complicated and intimi­dating, with procedures and services that vary from one area of the country to another. Once apprehended and charged with violating U.S. immigration laws, children enter a disjointed, labyrinthine system in which they may interact with numerous agencies within several federal government departments, as well as with a host of government contractors. (See Figure 1 on page 7 for an il­lustration of these agencies.) Children are also likely to move between several cities and states, and thus interact with even more stakeholders for the dura­tion of their proceedings.

In 2005, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) contracted with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop a program that would improve access to legal services for unaccompanied children in federal custody. In administering this program, Vera has benefited from extraordinary access to information about children’s movement through the system. Many stakeholders, particularly legal-and social-service providers, have said that a comprehensive account of how children move through the system would serve as a useful training tool for new staff and volunteers. Accordingly, this report is meant to be a resource for practitioners, policy makers, and researchers interested in the system that unaccompanied children encounter. It details the flow of children through the immigration detention and removal system from the point of apprehen­sion by immigration law-enforcement authorities to the close of their immi­gration cases.

The information in this report comes from data provided by Vera’s subcon­tracted legal service providers and ORR, reports on unaccompanied children, and project staff’s observations of the system. The report provides background related to the government’s custodial authority over these children, recent legislation affecting them, and a brief discussion about the definition of an “unaccompanied child.” It then describes the phases of children’s involvement in the system: apprehension and referral by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; ORR intake, placement, and care; release to family or other sponsors in the United States; immigration court proceedings and legal services; and outcomes.


In the 1980s, the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States increased. Many of them were fleeing Central America, where civil wars caused dislocation and other hardships.1 At that time, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) held unaccompanied children in its custody.2 The INS also acted as the children’s prosecutor, presenting charges that they had violated immigration laws and arguing for their deportation. In response to the conflict of interest inherent in the agency’s dual capacity as caretaker and prosecutor, as well as growing concerns about the conditions of detention, a broad coalition of human rights organizations, religious groups, and political leaders pushed for improvements in the care and treatment of unaccompa­nied children and lobbied for the transfer of their care and custody to another agency. 3

In 2002, the conflict of interest was finally resolved. After September 11, 2001, as immigration policy and border security came under increased scrutiny, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HSA). The HSA elimi­nated the INS and transferred all immigration and enforcement functions to three divisions of the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Cus­toms Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Seeing an opportunity to achieve their goal, children’s rights advocates successfully lobbied to attach an amendment to the HSA that transferred responsibility for the care, placement, and release of unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).4 ORR assumed this role on March 1, 2003, and subse­quently created the Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services (DUCS). Figure 1 shows all the federal actors involved with unaccompanied children in the immigration system at the time this report was published.5

Figure 1


The movement to set minimum standards for detention conditions for children began long before INS was eliminated and custody of unaccompanied children transferred to ORR.6 In 1997, after several years of class-action litiga­tion in federal court, an agreement known as the Flores settlement (stemming from a lawsuit called Flores v. Meese) imposed several obligations on the INS. First, the agency was required to release children from immigration detention to approved sponsors without unnecessary delay. Second, it was obligated to place children in the “least restrictive setting” appropriate to their ages and any special needs. Third, INS had to implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children in immigration detention.7 The terms of the Flores settlement now apply to DHS and ORR. 8

In recent years, members of Congress have introduced a number of bills to improve the services provided to unaccompanied children in the immigra­tion system, including provisions for the appointment of counsel and guard­ians ad litem (persons designated to act in the best interest of a child during a legal action.). This legislative activity began in 2000, at the time of the Elián González immigration and custody case. 9 California Senator Dianne Fein­stein introduced the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act (UACPA) in 2000 and again every year until 2007. Although Congress did not pass these bills, early versions of the UACPA served as predecessors to Section 462 of the HSA, the provision transferring custody from the INS to ORR. The counsel and guardian ad litem provisions in the original version did not survive, but a pro­posed amendment charged the director of ORR with ensuring that “qualified and independent legal counsel is timely appointed to represent the interests of each [unaccompanied] child, consistent with the law regarding appoint­ment of counsel that is in effect on the date of the enactment of this Act.”10

When the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was up for reauthoriza­tion in 2008, children’s rights proponents made additional legislative efforts to reform the law governing unaccompanied children. Many core provisions from the UACPA wound up in the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008, including a mandate for the non-adversarial adjudication of unaccompanied children’s asylum claims and, to the extent practicable, access to legal services through pro-bono legal representatives. Other provisions of the law mandate the safe repatriation of children to their countries of origin.11 The TVPRA also granted authority to HHS to appoint child advocates (guardians ad litem) to trafficking victims and other vulnerable unaccompanied children.


Academics, international organizations, and advocates use various terms and definitions to describe undocumented unaccompanied children. Both ORR and DHS apply the statutory definition explicit in the Homeland Security Act, which states that an “unaccompanied alien child” is a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States, is under 18 years of age, and has no parent or legal guardian in the country present or available to provide care and physical custody.12 The procedures and practices outlined in this report apply to children classified as “unaccompanied” using this definition.13

Soon after passage of the TVPRA, which provides special protections for unaccompanied children, debate grew over terminology and the applicabil­ity of the law’s protections.14 The TVPRA, for example, allows unaccompanied children to apply for asylum through the affirmative, non-adversarial pro­cess with the Asylum Office, a division of USCIS, rather than defensively in immigration court.15 (For more information about the asylum process, see “Legal Options for Children,” page 24.) Advocates argue that the crucial date for determining whether the TVPRA protections are relevant is the date when the government initiates proceedings against a child, and that such protec­tions should not be rescinded throughout the course of the proceedings. They maintain that children classified as unaccompanied should be allowed to ap­ply for asylum with the Asylum Office, even if they wait until after their 18th birthday or after they reunify with a family member. The Asylum Office has rejected this position and in March 2009 the agency issued a policy that it will not accept applications from children living with their parents or legal guard­ians or from individuals who are older than 18, even if applicants were classi­fied as unaccompanied children when placed into immigration proceedings.16

Figure 2

Apprehension by DHS and referral to ORR

The process by which unaccompanied children enter the U.S. immigration system begins when they are apprehended by federal authorities—one of the subsidiary agencies of DHS, such as CBP, the U.S. Coast Guard, or ICE—on sus­picion of violating immigration law.17 The Office of Border Patrol, a division of CBP, apprehends most of these children when they try to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Immigration enforcement authorities, acting through ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), apprehend other children in the United States during worksite enforcement actions or through operations to combat smuggling and human trafficking.18

Other unaccompanied children are first arrested by a state or local law en­forcement agency, and when these so-called “internal apprehensions” occur, an immigration arrest may take place at various points during the juvenile or criminal justice process. Sometimes, before initiating any charges in the state system, local law enforcement will contact ICE to report that a child who may be an undocumented immigrant is in its custody.19 Other children go through juvenile delinquency or criminal court proceedings and serve time in a state or county facility, after which authorities contact ICE. Depending on ICE’s determination about immigration status, children may be transferred to DHS custody. When ICE authorities decide to arrest someone in state or local custody, they typically place a detainer on the child so that the local agency holds the child in custody until ICE arranges for a transfer to a DHS detention facility.20 Finally, in some circumstances, state or local authorities may dismiss the state court proceedings to expedite transfer of the child to DHS custody.21

After a person who appears to be an unaccompanied child is taken into DHS custody, CBP or ICE places the child in a temporary DHS detention facility, ensuring that he or she is not housed with unrelated adults.22 The DHS officer then determines whether the person is younger than 18 and unaccompanied.23 In cases of doubt about age, DHS sometimes requests a dental or skeletal ra­diograph, though radiographs have been criticized as unreliable in determin­ing age.24 If neither a parent nor a legal guardian is with the child at the time of apprehension—or within geographical proximity—DHS classifies the child as unaccompanied.25 Once DHS makes this determination, an ICE or CBP officer interviews the child and fills out a series of immigration forms.26 The CBP or ICE officer then refers the case to the ICE juvenile coordinator for that district, who reports to a national juvenile coordinator in Washington, DC, contacts ORR, and arranges for the child’s transfer to the ORR/DUCS facility desig­nated by the ORR intake team.27 DHS has the authority to release a child if the agency can locate a parent or other adult relative. Given the fear of deporta­tion, however, undocumented family members living in the United States may not come forward when the child is apprehended.28

In fiscal year 2009, 6,092 unaccompanied children were admitted to ORR custody after referral by DHS. In fiscal year 2010, this number was 8,207 chil­dren, reflecting a 35 percent increase. During this two-year period, ICE field offices in Phoenix (5,673 referrals), San Antonio (4,835), Miami (814), and San Diego (455) apprehended and referred the greatest number of children to ORR.

Under the TVPRA, special rules apply to children who come from the “con­tiguous countries” of Mexico and Canada. When CBP or ICE apprehends Mexi­can or Canadian children at the border or another port of entry (such as an airport), they provide them with a notice of rights and request for disposition (Form I-770), which allows them to request a hearing before an immigration judge in the United States or elect to return immediately to their home coun­try through a process called voluntary return.29 If a child chooses the latter op­tion, CBP must first conduct a screening to verify that the child is not a victim of trafficking or at risk of being trafficked upon return to the home country, that the child does not have a credible fear of persecution in that country, and that he or she is capable of making an independent decision to withdraw an application for admission into the United States.30 If the child does not meet these criteria or if DHS cannot make this determination within 48 hours of apprehension, the child must be transferred to the care and custody of ORR according to the same process that applies to children from other countries.31 The vast majority of unaccompanied Mexican children apprehended at the southern border elect to go back to Mexico through the voluntary return process.32 A U.S. Border Patrol land vehicle usually transports the children to Mexico within one business day.33

In an attempt to classify and quantify the types of DHS apprehensions (whether they are considered border apprehensions or internal apprehen­sions), Vera project staff reviewed ORR’s data about children who were ad­mitted to its custody from October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2010. By subtracting the date of entry into the United States from the date of DHS apprehension, researchers were able to make certain assumptions about chil­dren’s experiences.

As Figure 3 illustrates, in fiscal year 2010 the majority of children were ap­prehended within 24 hours of entering the United States. These immediate apprehensions happen most often at the Mexican border or at an airport or other port of entry. Approximately 80 percent of children were apprehended within one week of entering the United States. Approximately 5 percent were apprehended within one month (but after more than one week) of entering the country. Two percent were apprehended between one month and one year after entering the United States, 1 percent were apprehended between one and two years after entry, and 3 percent were apprehended more than two years after entry.

In fiscal year 2010, 524 children (6 percent) were apprehended more than one month after entry. One may infer that these were “internal apprehensions” and that local law enforcement referred many of the children to ICE. The ICE field offices responsible for the greatest number of these apprehensions were Phoenix (158 referrals), Los Angeles (64), San Antonio (34), Miami (30), and Seattle (28).

The ORR data did not list an entry date for 765 children (9 percent of chil­dren admitted to the agency’s custody in fiscal year 2010). Vera subcontractors report that children who have lived in the United States for many years often do not remember the exact date they entered the country, and immigration authorities would have a record of the entry date only if a child previously entered with a visa.34 Thus, many of the children without a documented entry date may have lived in the United States for a considerable amount of time and may have been apprehended by ICE internally, either through contact with local law enforcement or as the result of an ICE worksite raid or anti-trafficking effort.35 In 2010, most children without a known entry date were referred to ORR by ICE field offices in San Francisco (106 referrals), Los Angeles (92), Houston (85), Phoenix (73), or New York (60).

As mentioned, the number of unaccompanied children DHS apprehended and referred to ORR was greater in fiscal year 2010 than in 2009. The number of children apprehended within 24 hours of entry increased by 7 percent, and the number of children apprehended within two to seven days after entry de­creased by 4 percent. (See Figure 3.) Overall, the percentage of children appre­hended more than eight days after entry decreased slightly. The percentage of children without a known entry date remained constant from fiscal year 2009 to 2010.

After a child is transferred to ORR custody, DHS continues to play a role in immigration proceedings. Through ICE’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor, DHS prosecutes the case on behalf of the government. If an immigration judge orders the child’s removal, ICE, acting through ERO, is responsible for returning the child to his or her home country.

figure 3.
figure 4.

Intake, Placement and Care in ORR Custody.

From October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2010, ORR had 14,299 admissions into its Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services (DUCS) for 13,945 chil­dren. (Because DHS apprehended several hundred children again after their release from ORR custody, resulting in multiple admissions, the number of children admitted into DUCS care is smaller than the total number of admis­sions.) Admissions fluctuated greatly from month to month, with an average monthly rate of 596 new admissions, a low of 373 in January 2009, and a high of 916 in May 2010. New admissions peaked in the spring and summer and declined in the fall and winter of both years. (See Figure 4; also see Appendix I for demographic information about children admitted into ORR custody.)

Most children in ORR custody receive care through a network of local providers, including private nonprofit organizations, as well as governmental j
uvenile justice agencies. As of July 2011, approximately 50 ORR/DUCS-funded facilities and programs were operating in 12 states. The facilities, providing services under cooperative agreements and contracts, vary in size and struc­ture. Pursuant to the Flores settlement, however, all facilities must provide children with classroom education, health care, socializing/recreation activi­ties, vocational training, mental health services, case management, and, when possible, assist with family reunification.


The ORR intake process begins when an ICE juvenile coordinator contacts ORR’s centralized intake team, which is on call around the clock. To determine the category of placement, the team tries to gather as much information as possible from ICE about the child—including gender, age, country of origin, date and location of apprehension, medical and psychological condition, and previous contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system. Using this information, the intake team classifies the child according to security level and needs, evaluates which DUCS-funded facilities have available capacity, and makes a placement decision. Intake staff contact the selected facility to arrange for placement. After sending the facility information ICE obtained, the intake team contacts ICE to arrange for transport.

ORR has the following four categories of initial placements for children:

>>Shelter care. Children who are eligible for a minimally restrictive level of care are placed in shelters. Most children in shelter care do not have special needs or a history of contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.

>>Staff-secure care. Children with a history of nonviolent or petty of­fenses or who present an escape risk are placed in staff-secure care.

>>Secure care. Children with a history of violent offenses or who pose a threat to themselves or others are placed in secure care.36

>>Transitional (short-term) foster care. Children younger than 13, sib­ling groups with one child younger than 13, pregnant and parenting teens, and children with special needs are prioritized for short-term placement with a foster family.

Figure 5.

Although most children are automatically placed in shelter care, certain children—those who have a history of contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system, gang involvement, or prior escapes or acts of violence while in government custody—are evaluated by the ORR intake team for placement us­ing a standardized placement screening questionnaire developed by ORR with assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice. The tool is implemented in two stages. The first stage determines the initial placement, one of the four types of care described above, and is based on information the referring ICE juve­nile coordinator gives to the ORR intake team. Children who score at certain levels during the first stage are subject to a post-placement review, known as Further Assessment Swift Track (FAST), within 30 days of the initial placement.

­Typically, all children who are placed in secure care and some who are placed in staff-secure care receive a FAST review. During the second stage, ORR staff administer the placement tool again, incorporating additional informa­tion that DUCS-contracted care providers and federal field staff have gathered since the child’s arrival in custody. The FAST process is designed to encourage the transfer of children to less-restrictive settings—from secure to staff-secure care or from staff-secure to shelter care.

In the two-year period Vera analyzed, the vast majority of children admit­ted into DUCS care (80 percent) were initially placed in shelter care. Another 11 percent were initially placed in transitional foster care, 4 percent in secure care, and 4 percent in staff-secure care. (See Figure 5.)

Most children in ORR custody are placed at DUCS-contracted facilities close to the United States–Mexico border.37 As of July 2011, ORR had a funded capac­ity of 1,649 shelter, staff-secure, secure, and short-term foster care beds; 1,273 of these were shelter beds. 38 Of the shelter beds, 864 (68 percent) were within 250 miles of the Mexican border; 268 of these (21 percent) were in facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Figure 6


ORR-contracted care providers and ORR field staff are instructed to continually assess each child to determine whether transfer to an alternative placement, including a less-restrictive setting, would better meet his or her needs.39 In addition to the four types of placements already described, children may also be transferred to long-term care. One option is long-term foster care, which is a family-style living environment for children who have no viable family reunification options in the United States and are identified by an attorney as eligible for relief from removal. (For more information about legal relief, see “Legal Options for Children,” page 24.) Another long-term option is an extended-care group home, intended for children who have demonstrated the potential to live in a community-based environment and attend public school. Other placement options include residential treatment centers, for children who have psychiatric or psychological issues that staff cannot adequately ad­dress in an outpatient setting, and specialized therapeutic staff-secure pro­grams, which may focus on a specific population, such as children who have been charged or adjudicated with committing sex offenses. In emergencies, children who are actively suicidal or homicidal may be admitted to a hospital for acute psychiatric care.

Most children (91 percent) admitted to ORR custody from October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2010, had one placement per ORR admission.40 Seven percent of children had two placements per admission into ORR custody, 2 percent had three placements, and 0.1 percent had four or more placements. Children apprehended by DHS and referred to ORR multiple times were some­times placed in five or more DUCS facilities over the course of their stays in ORR custody.

During the two-year period Vera analyzed, the length of stay per DHS refer­ral to ORR ranged from less than a day to 710 days. (See Figure 6.) Most chil­dren (75 percent) remained in DUCS care for one week to four months, with an average stay of 61 days. Length of stay was calculated by subtracting the date admitted into ORR custody from the final discharge date, including any transfers.

Figure 7

Reunifying with a Sponsor in the United States.

One of ORR’s principal responsibilities is to implement the Flores settlement’s guidelines favoring timely release of unaccompanied children to an approved sponsor unless continued custody is necessary to ensure their appearance be­fore DHS or in immigration court. The process of release to a sponsor is called reunification, even if the child did not previously live with this individual, family, or program. At least 65 percent of children admitted to DUCS care are ultimately placed with a sponsor.41

The process of searching for a sponsor typically begins within 24 hours of a child’s arrival at the facility. An intake form assesses the individual’s basic and immediate care needs and helps determine whether the child may be safely released to a sponsor in the United States. Within three to seven days of admission, a social worker completes an admissions assessment, which includes biographic, family, legal/migration, medical, and/or any substance use or mental health history. Finally, a master’s level social worker (or equiva­lent)—often referred to as the clinician—completes a psychosocial assessment and an individualized service plan within 21 days of admission.42

The facility where a child is detained has primary responsibility for assess­ing a potential sponsor, under the oversight of ORR field staff. When possible, a child will be released to a parent living in the United States. Some children, however, may not have living parents, may have parents who reside outside of the country, or may have parents who are unavailable or unable to care for them. In these situations, a child may be released to a legal guardian, adult relative, or another ORR-approved individual or entity. In accordance with the Flores settlement, the following order of preference is used when releasing a child to a sponsor:

1. a parent;

2. a legal guardian;

3. an adult relative (brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or grandparent);

4. an adult individual or entity designated by the child’s parent or legal guardian as capable and willing to provide care;

5. a licensed program willing to accept legal custody (such as a shelter for homeless youth); or

6. an adult or entity approved by ORR, when another alternative to long-term detention is unlikely and family reunification does not appear to be a reasonable possibility.43

ORR requires documentation establishing the sponsor’s relationship to the child. In 2008, it issued a policy clarification about releasing children to adults who are not relatives. For a sponsor in the fourth category, homeless youth programs or other specialized entities that provide care for children who are on their own.

Under the TVPRA of 2008, HHS is required to commission a home study (which assesses the suitability of a custodial placement) of a potential sponsor in the following four situations:

>>the child is a victim of a severe form of human trafficking;

>>the child has a disability, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990;

>>the child has been a victim of physical or sexual abuse under circum­stances indicating that the child’s health or welfare has been signifi­cantly harmed or threatened; or

>>the proposed sponsor clearly presents a risk to the child of abuse, mal­treatment, exploitation, or trafficking.47

Home studies can delay a child’s placement with a sponsor. ORR has recently made efforts to reduce the time home studies take; however, the process may still take several months from the time the study is ordered until the final release decision.48 ORR may also provide post-release follow-up services when the parent or legal guardian must provide documentation establishing his or her relationship to the child and a notarized letter designating the adult who will care for the un­accompanied child upon release. ORR does not allow release to a child’s adult boyfriend or girlfriend, even if the child’s parent consents. The sixth category, an adult sponsor not designated by the parent or legal guardian, is to be used only as a last resort, when likely alternatives to long-term care in ORR custody do not exist.44

Once the facility identifies a potential sponsor, staff sends that person or program a family reunification packet, which includes requests for informa­tion such as verification of the relationship to the child, age, gender, address, household composition, employment, and immigration status. A facility staff member verifies the potential sponsor’s relationship to the child; explores the motivation for sponsorship, the ability to address the child’s needs, the home environment, and support system; and verifies the potential sponsor’s legal status and financial and employment status. ORR also requires a fingerprint background check of potential sponsors to investigate any criminal record or history of child abuse, factors that often disqualify them. Before approv­ing such a placement, a facility case manager interviews the unaccompanied child, the potential sponsor, and parents or legal guardians, if available. After the packet is completed, the facility makes a recommendation for or against release. Ultimately, ORR staff must approve all release decisions.45

ORR provided data to Vera about all potential sponsors the agency consid­ered during this period for all children who were ultimately released.46 Figure 7 shows that of the 9,324 potential sponsors ORR considered for children who were eventually released to a sponsor, 32 percent were the children’s parents, 27 percent were family friends, 19 percent were their aunts or uncles, and 9 percent were siblings. The category “Other” included step-siblings and god­parents. Forty-six children were released to licensed state programs, such as a provider determines that additional assistance is needed to connect a child and sponsor to community services (such as mental health care) to meet the child’s needs. Whenever a child’s sponsor has undergone a home study, ORR requires that post-release follow-up services are provided until the child fin­ishes removal proceedings or turns 18 years old.49

If providers recommend release, release with post-release follow-up services, or referral for a home study, they must notify the ICE juvenile coordinator.50 At the same time, the provider also forwards the family reunification packet to the ORR-contracted case coordinator for review.

Once approved, a sponsor must sign an agreement with ORR that obligates the person or entity to care for the child’s physical, mental, and financial well-being. The sponsor is also responsible for ensuring that the child makes all scheduled immigration court appearances and complies with any immigra­tion court orders. The sponsor must inform DHS of a change of address and no­tify DHS if the child disappears.51 ORR maintains that once a child is released from the agency’s care, its statutory mandate to the child ends. 52 It is not clear, however, which government agency is responsible for ensuring the safety of children once they are released to sponsors or for ensuring their compliance with the signed ORR agreement. 53 In its 2008 report, the Office of the Inspector General at HHS recommended that a memorandum of understanding be­tween DHS and ORR help clarify responsibility for post-release monitoring.54

Figure 8

Figure 8 shows the 10 states where 76 percent of potential sponsors resided, and thus where reunifications took place, in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. The greatest number of these individuals resided in California, followed by New York and Texas. Twenty-four percent (2,231 individuals) of potential sponsors lived in states other than those listed.

All of these processes—placement, possible transfer, and family reunifica­tion—take time. Although a majority of children have only one ORR place­ment, many are moved from place to place, often resulting in more time in federal custody. Figure 9 depicts one example of a child’s movement through the system. The boy was born in Mexico, entered the United States as an infant in January 1994, and was apprehended by DHS in Phoenix in May 2010. He entered ORR custody and was admitted into a secure DUCS facility in Virginia a few days after his apprehension. In July 2010, he was transferred to a staff-secure facility in Texas. In October 2010, five months after apprehension and almost 17 years after entering the United States, the boy was returned to Mexico.

Figure 9
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