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Immigration Relief For Unaccompanied Minors

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written by NITA guest blogger Losmin Jimenez

In recent years, the plight of unaccompanied minors seeking protection has garnered much attention in the United States. What does it mean for a child to be an “unaccompanied minor?” This blog post examines the definition of unaccompanied minor, root causes for child migration in the United States, and an overview of some common forms of immigration relief for unaccompanied minors. Given the complex nature of this topic, this blog post provides a brief starting point for a practitioner interested in learning more about this vulnerable population. Hopefully, it will inspire the reader to volunteer and provide pro bono representation to an unaccompanied minor.

An “unaccompanied minor” or “unaccompanied alien child” (“UAC”) as defined by U.S. immigration law is a child who “(A) has no lawful immigration status in the [U.S.]; (B) has not attained 18 years of age; and (C) with respect to whom— (i) there is no parent or legal guardian in the [U.S.]; or (ii) no parent or legal guardian in the [U.S.] is available to provide care and physical custody.”[1]

Between 2014 and 2016, 168,203 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the U.S.[2] While many reasons exist for why a child flees his or her country of origin, the vast majority of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. are fleeing gang violence, gang recruitment, narco-traffickers, child abuse, or gender-based violence. Some children hope to reunify with a parent or family member in the U.S.[3] Although the children arriving in the U.S. are from many different countries, the top three countries of origin in fiscal years 2014, 2015, and 2016 were Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.[4] Indeed, the top three countries of origin of unaccompanied minors seeking protection in the U.S.—countries sometimes referred to as the “Northern Triangle” countries— are some of the most violent countries in the world. Currently, El Salvador is the most deadly country in the world after Syria.[5] In 2013, “Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate for a non-war zone in 2013 with 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.”[6] According to a recent report by Kids in Need of Defense (“KIND”), “[o]n average two women are murdered each day in Guatemala and the number of women murdered each year has more than tripled since 2000.”[7]

Obviously every child has a unique life story that determines his or her eligibility for immigration relief. However, under U.S. immigration law there are some common forms of relief practitioners see in this area such as special immigrant juvenile status, asylum, and the T nonimmigrant visa for survivors of human trafficking.

Respondents in immigration court have a right to be represented by an attorney in immigration court, at no expense to the government[8]; there is no right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, even if the Respondent is a child. Despite the complexities of immigration law, about 60 percent of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. have to face immigration court without a lawyer.[9] Unaccompanied minors with a lawyer are five times more likely to gain protection under U.S. immigration law, while only one in ten unaccompanied minors without attorneys win their cases.[10] Without a lawyer, unaccompanied minors do not have a meaningful opportunity to be heard and are in grave danger of being returned to the dangerous conditions they fled.[11]

Consider contacting your local immigration advocacy organization and taking a pro bono case. You will grow as an attorney professionally and personally, provide access to justice to a very vulnerable person, and have the chance to impact a child’s destiny.

[1] 6 U.S.C. §279 (g)(2).
[2] See U.S. Customs and Border Protection, available at (last visited May 13, 3017).
[3] See Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Universidad Nacional de Lanus, Childhood and Migration in Central and North America: Causes, Policies, Practices, and Challenges, February 2015, pages iii, vi, vii, available at (last visited May 13, 2017).
[4] See U.S. Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee and Resettlement, Facts and Data, available at (last visited May 7, 2017).
[5] See Nina Lakhani, ‘We Fear Soldiers More Than Gangsters’: El Salvador’s ‘Iron Fist’ Policy Turns Deadly, The Guardian, Feb. 6, 2017, available at (last visited May 13, 2017).
[6] See Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Universidad Nacional de Lanus, supra Note 3, at iii.
[7] See KIND, Neither Security nor Justice: Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Gang Violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, May 4, 2017, at 5, available at (last visited May 14, 2017).
[8] See Immigration and Nationality Act, § 240 (b)(4)(A).
[9] See Representation for Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Court, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (“TRAC”) at Syracuse University, available at (last visited on May 19, 2017); see also KIND Talking Points: Unaccompanied Children in the United States, available at (last visited on May 15, 2017).
[10] Id.
[11] Id.

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