Learning from Youth Envisioning Freedom for Unaccompanied Children

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Hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children and youth from around the world have arrived in the United States over the past decade seeking protection from violence, persecution, war, and insecurity. Yet, their reception into the country has often led them into an immigration system characterized by systematic criminalization, a lack of transparency, and separation from their families. The reception system for children arriving to the United States needs to be reformed to demonstrate respect for their basic human dignity. In interviews and group discussions, Vera engaged with 32 young adults who were detained as unaccompanied minors by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They shared their stories about navigating the complex U.S. immigration system. Drawing from their lived experience and expertise, they developed 10 proposals to reform the reception system for unaccompanied children and youth in a way that centers their freedom, safety, and family unity.

Key Takeaway

Reception for unaccompanied children and youth should be designed to welcome, house, and support them—not to criminalize and institutionalize them. Policymakers need to reform the reception system in a way that centers dignity and keeps families together.

Publication Highlights

  • Children and youth should not be separated from their family members or guardians by CBP at the reception stage.

  • Children and youth in ORR custody should be treated with respect by facility staff, extended broader visitation privileges, and permitted more freedom of movement and access to their community.

  • Policymakers should forge stronger pathways for regular, authorized migration so that children and youth can migrate safely to the United States with their families, should they so choose.