An unaccompanied child is defined as someone who enters the United States under the age of eighteen, without lawful status, and without an accompanying parent or legal guardian. Despite the term’s implication, many children do not enter the country alone but are either separated from their family members at the border or left by smugglers or other migrants near the border. The number of unaccompanied minors plunged in early 2020 due to border closures and restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic; however, a recent surge has led to a strain on government resources and a backlog of cases in immigration courts.
Each year, thousands of children travel to the southern border from the Northern Triangle region of Central America. In fiscal year 2021, 47% of children were from Guatemala, 32% were from Honduras, and 13% were from El Salvador. Many children are escaping deadly gang violence, poverty, devastating hurricanes, and the pandemic. Most others are coming from Mexico, where violence continues to escalate amid the government’s war against drug cartels. Despite the dangerous journey, children are fleeing to the U.S. border to either be reunited with family members already here or escape dangerous conditions in their home countries. Unfortunately, once children arrive at the U.S. border, they continue to face difficult challenges including navigating a complex immigration system to stay in the United States, often by themselves.