The Unaccompanied Children Program coordinates a national effort to increase pro bono legal representation for immigrant children in removal (deportation) proceedings without a parent or legal guardian. These children may be fleeing poverty, war, or other dangerous circumstances on their own, or they may have lost contact with an adult along the way. They are detained in federal custody in shelters or detention centers contracted by the Division of Children’s Services (DCS, formerly DUCS), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Currently, Vera staff oversee programs at 26 nonprofit agencies that provide assistance to children throughout the country. At each site, children receive:

  • Know Your Rights Orientations. Providers give group or individual presentations to newly arrived children at detention facilities prior to each child’s first court appearance, which teach the children about their rights while in detention and the immigration court process
  • Individual Screenings. Providers meet individually with all unaccompanied children to identify their legal needs and provide additional education about their rights and immigration law
  • Pro Bono Assistance, Referrals and Representation. Providers recruit, train, and mentor pro bono attorneys, and match children with pro bono representation whenever possible.
  • Coordinated Services. Providers communicate with detention facility caseworkers, ORR staff, child welfare practitioners, and immigration authorities about unaccompanied children’s needs and issues

In addition, children in the Chicago, South Texas, Washington, DC, and New York areas also have access to the appointment of a child advocate who can assess, and make recommendations regarding, the best interests of the child.

Why We Need This Program
Each year, thousands of children fleeing war and poverty enter the United States unaccompanied by an adult or separated from their parents or legal guardians. Although many of them meet conditions that would allow them to remain in the country legally, going through immigration proceedings without legal help is daunting. The Homeland Security Act requires the Office of Refugee Resettlement to ensure that qualified and independent legal counsel is appointed for unaccompanied children in its custody in a timely manner. To meet this requirement, ORR contracted with the Vera Institute in 2005, and again in 2009, to manage a national network of pro bono legal service providers, which is developing and testing ways to meet the legal needs of unaccompanied children.

For more information about this program, contact Anne Marie Mulcahy.

Finding Free or Low-cost Legal Help
Vera’s Unaccompanied Children Program has prepared a directory of legal service organizations that provide free or low-cost immigration legal assistance and representation for non-detained children in immigration proceedings. The directory, which is organized alphabetically by state, includes...
The Flow of Unaccompanied Children through the Immigration System: a Resource for Practitioners, Policy Makers, and Researchers
Every year, thousands of unaccompanied children come into contact with the U.S. Immigration system, a daunting web of laws and policies involving numerous government agencies. Since 2005, Vera’s Center on Immigration and Justice has administered a federally funded program to improve access to legal...
Promoting justice in the immigration system: legal access for unaccompanied children
The Vera Institute of Justice has worked with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and nonprofit legal service providers to administer the Unaccompanied Children Pro Bono Pilot Project (UCPBP) since 2005. This innovative program provides legal information and pro bono legal...
Unaccompanied children in the United States: a literature review
This literature review, which examines articles by an assortment of scholars, advocates, and practicing attorneys, provides an overview of the published research on unaccompanied children in the Unitesd States within a legal and historical context. The report should be of interest to practitioners...