Friday, September 19, 2014

Unaccompanied Minor Children: Where Do We Go? What Can We Do?

The surge in numbers of unaccompanied minor children (predominantly from Central America) crossing southwestern U.S. borders has drawn much national attention. Compelled by poverty, socio-economic inequities, and high incidence of violence from gangs and drug cartels, parents seek passage to the U.S. for their daughters and sons. These children cross our borders carrying something more precious than their belongings -- they carry hope, the hope that they will escape harm and that they will live a better life.

But the journey may be dangerous. It often relies on unscrupulous human smuggling networks that expose them to harm, exploitation and abuse. And if they survive the journey, once on US soil these children wait to be reunited with relatives already living in the US. Notes are pinned to the clothing of some as young as four years old to help identify and locate relatives. While they still carry hope, they must also wonder: Where do I go? Where do I belong?

The plight of these children presents an enormous challenge. Political posturing abounds. Blame is hurled at laws and policies established by current and previous presidential Administrations’ and failed immigration reform proposals. Congressional stalemates on requests for funding to address the large increase of children abound. But all this is irrelevant to the children. What we have is a humanitarian crisis. Federal law says minors cannot be held at a Border Patrol facility for more than 72 hours. They must be processed, then either sent to live with a relative or released to a shelter operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (Department of Health and Human Services). The refugee office operates only about 150 permanent shelters for unaccompanied minors and they are filled to capacity. So, again where do they go? 

As the influx of unaccompanied minor children is most-recognized in the southwest, many of our states are experiencing increasing numbers with no immediate end in sight. New York places second only to Texas with the number of children released to sponsors, with over 4,000 children released to our state from January through July this year. Federal law requires that unaccompanied children arriving from non-bordering countries be given a removal hearing in court. While awaiting proceedings (which could take months or even years) unaccompanied children go through a two-step process: first, federal shelter until placed with a sponsor; second, release to “approved” sponsor, usually a family member or friend, to await disposition hearing. 

When children are released to their sponsor, they are eligible to enroll in the local school district. Under Federal law, states and local educational agencies are obligated to provide all children – regardless of immigration status – equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level. This has resulted in schools across the nation, including our NY schools, experiencing a sharp rise in numbers of immigrant students. Districts receiving them are in need of resources, i.e. funding, staff and services, to assist supporting these students and families. So, where can we go? 

National PTA has received inquiries from state leaders and membership asking the questions, “Where can WE go?” and “How can WE Help?” To find out, click on the links to documents below. We are the most committed, most powerful child advocacy group in the nation. Together we must find innovative ways PTAs can welcome and support these children, their families and sponsors as we are all neighbors sharing our homes, schools and communities:  

Unaccompanied Children in the U.S.: Fact Sheet and Resources

Answers to common questions about the increase of unaccompanied children entering the United States from Central America including federal and state responsibilities, the anticipated impact on public schools and federal resources available to address this impact, and the federal response to date.

Connecting with Children & Families who Recently Immigrated: Putting PTA's National Standards for Family-School Partnerships into Action

Using PTA’s National Standards for Family-School Partnerships as a guide, here are some ways local PTAs can welcome and support all children, families and sponsors of children who recently immigrated to the United States. This resource also contains national and community resources that can provide PTAs with valuable supports and services to engage families and sponsors.

National PTA’s Position statement and talking points:

  • National PTA’s position statement Services for Undocumented Children
  • Talking Points for PTAs: Services for Unaccompanied Children 

Policy Briefing: Increase of Unaccompanied Children Entering the United States

A webinar for state and local PTA leadership on the recent increase of unaccompanied children entering the United States. This resource provides an overview of the issue including relevant federal laws, federal and state impact, PTA positions, and available PTA resources. The slides are available here and the recording is available here.

Please distribute these resources widely to your membership. These resources, as well as future resources on this matter, can be accessed at

Lana Ajemian, President
Reflect the past, Transform today, Inspire tomorrow!