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FAQs about Unaccompanied Children (UCs)

What does “unaccompanied children” mean?

Children who arrive in the United States alone or who are required to appear in immigration court on their own often are referred to as unaccompanied children or unaccompanied minors. “Unaccompanied Alien Child” (UAC) is a technical term defined by law as a child who has no lawful immigration stat­us in the United States; is under 18 years old; and  there is no parent or legal guardian available to provide care and physical custody. 

Where do they come from?

Most unaccompanied children come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  However, unaccompanied children can be from any country as long as they meet the definition above.

Why are they coming here?

There are many reasons why children and families are making the journey from Central America to the United States.  The most common reasons are widespread poverty in the children’s home country and children fleeing the gang and cartel violence which is so prevalent and which the governments are unable to curtail. To give some perspective, the homicide rate in Honduras in 2012 was 90.4 per 100,000 people.  In 2012, the rate in the United States was 4.7 per 100,000 people.

What happens to the children after they arrive?

The majority of unaccompanied children encountered by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are apprehended, processed, and detained.  There are protections in place which dictate how/where and for how long unaccompanied children can be detained.  The conditions for unaccompanied children in custody are set forth in the Flores Settlement Agreement which was negotiated in 1997 as a result of the case of Flores v. Reno, a 1987 California case.

According to the Flores Settlement Agreement, unaccompanied children are to be held in the least restrictive setting and the facilities are required to provide adequate food, clothing, medical care, education and communication with the child’s family. The staff caring for the child is required to maintain continued efforts to reunite the child with his/her family. The goal is always reunification when possible.

Where do they go after the temporary stay at the border?

After a short period of time at the border, the unaccompanied children are transported to shelters under the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement. These shelters are charged with providing the above services and attempting to reunite each child with his/her family.

Are these children going to be deported from the U.S.?

It should be mentioned that every unaccompanied child entering the United States without proper documentation is placed in removal proceedings. The government actively tries to deport these children.

How long is the process?

During the first several weeks, the unaccompanied children experience several transfers. They are processed at the border within 72 hours, then moved to a shelter facility and if a sponsor is identified and approved, the unaccompanied child is released to his/her sponsor. This process can take from 3 weeks to 8 months or more if a sponsor cannot be identified or approved.  Once the unaccompanied child is released from the shelter, he/she is required to appear in Immigration Court as scheduled by the court. The removal process can take from 3 months (if he/she wants to return to his/her home country through voluntary departure) to 4 or more years depending on the type of relief that may be available to the child.

How many unaccompanied children are there in the United States?

The number varies by season and by the policy of the current administration. At the height of the surge in Fiscal Year 2014, there were an estimated 68,445 unaccompanied minors. As of May 2019, the best estimate was 13,200 unaccompanied minors. The numbers have decreased; however, there is no indication that underlying problems in the Central American countries are being resolved. Therefore it is unrealistic to believe that the arrival of unaccompanied children fleeing from those problems will stop.

What is the role of JFCS with these children?

JFCS is one of the legal service providers, which has a contract to provide legal immigration services to unaccompanied children in local shelters.  We provide a Know Your Rights presentation to inform the children of their legal rights and how to file a complaint if necessary. Additionally, JFCS staff meets with each unaccompanied child individually to make a determination about legal relief options and to discuss a strategy with the child about his/her immigration case.

In addition to the work we do with unaccompanied children in custody, we also serve a large number of children who were released to local sponsors from shelters across the United States.  We provide legal representation for the duration of the released child’s immigration case.

We assist with repatriation to the home country through voluntary departure if that is the wish of the unaccompanied child. Additionally, JFCS provides sponsors with information about the unaccompanied child’s case, information about free legal representation in their area, etc.

What are some ways an unaccompanied child can stay in the United States?

In removal proceedings, there are a limited number of forms of relief under the law.  The most common forms of relief applied for by unaccompanied children are: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), Asylum, and a self-petitioning victim of a significant crime (U,T, VAWA).

SIJS is a status wherein a child has been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents. The burden of proof is established by the state court and a family/state court judge must make a determination that the abuse, abandonment or neglect has met that burden of proof. Findings of fact must also be made that it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to his/her country of origin.  The family court Order must be entered before the child turns 18 years old. After that, the child is required to file a petition with US Citizenship and Immigration Services requesting SIJS.  This petition is processed within approximately 180 days. Afterward, the child must wait for a visa to become available before applying for adjustment of status (green card).  The current wait time for visa availability is approximately 3.5 years.

Asylum is where an individual has a fear of returning to his/her country of origin due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution by the government or an entity the government is unable or unwilling to control.  The bases for an asylum claim are race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Visas for victims is a general category which includes victims of human trafficking, domestic abuse at the hands of a U.S. Citizen or permanent resident parent or step parent as well as the victim of a significant crime in the United States.  The process to obtain one of these visas is to file an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, complete with (in most cases) a law-enforcement certification, signed by a district attorney, investigator or police officer confirming that the victim is assisting law enforcement in the investigation of the case.

Why should I/we support JFCS?

Children are innocent and vulnerable. As such, these unaccompanied children do not have the ability to work and hire a private attorney.  There is no government funding for JFCS to represent unaccompanied children once they are released though their cases continue for an average of 2-4 years.  The most important reason why unaccompanied children need representation in removal proceedings in immigration court is because it is almost impossible to win a case without representation.


The following statistics were pulled from a 2015 study done by TRAC Immigration using data from FY 2012-2014.

Without attorneys, 85% of unaccompanied minors were forced to leave the United States. During that same time when children had lawyers, only 27% of children were required to leave.

How can I help?

There are several ways to help.

  1. Become active! Spread the word, write to your congressional representatives and tell them your views on the issue.
  2. Join Pgh4IC to help raise awareness and funds to support local Unaccompanied Minors with immigration legal fees.
  3. Volunteer with JFCS or any of the agencies working with Unaccompanied Minors.