Hundreds of thousands of children are leaving their homes, either with family members or on their own, experiencing internal displacement and attempting to cross borders throughout the Americas. In addition to those fleeing northern Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras account for some of the highest rates of homicide and gender-based violence in the world—vulnerable populations throughout the region also bear the brunt of climate-induced disasters, food insecurity, extreme poverty, and crime. Some come from countries as far away as Africa and Asia and hope to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many have experienced abuse, exploitation, detention, deprivation, and discrimination along their migration journeys.
Efforts to respond appropriately to migrant and asylum-seeking children and families require innovative thinking and collaborative action. Young people who have lived the migration experience and those who have helped them navigate risk and find protection along the way must inform and guide the response. Those closest to the challenges are also closest to the solutions, yet these perspectives are rarely prioritized.
Immigration policy garners a great deal of attention and engenders much debate, much of which is rarely child-centered. The predominant focus of conversations around immigration policy and response is border enforcement. What happens when the focus shifts and migration is considered from the lens of the children, families, and communities most impacted? What if we rethink migration from the perspective of a whole child on a whole migration journey and prioritize what that child might need before the migration journey begins, along the way, and upon arrival in destination or return communities?
During spring 2022, the Innovating Protection for Children on the Move Across the Americas forum brought a child-focused and solutions-oriented lens to the dynamic landscape of migration between countries of origin and return, the U.S.-Mexico border, and within receiving communities across the United States.
"Shifting from a focus on risks and deficits towards strengths-based solutions engages young people, families, communities, and other stakeholders to identify what works, helping actors build capacity and approaches that are likely to enhance cross-system collaboration to support children and families and promote their resilience and well-being."
— Gillian Huebner
Convened by Georgetown University’s Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, the Institute for the Study of International Migration, and the Georgetown Americas Institute, in coordination with strategic partners, the forum included a three-part webinar series and blog posts that centered the perspectives of young people who have experienced migration and stakeholders working along the migratory route in various capacities and sectors. The initiative identified protective factors and responses enhancing child-sensitive policies, strategic investments, and collaborative partnerships across borders as well as here in the United States.
The forum was conceived and planned by a collaborative design team comprised of thought leaders from Georgetown University, UNICEF, the Global Fund for Children, and two migrant youth-serving organizations in the DC metro area, Identity and Imagination Stage. The team worked together to ensure the conversation incorporated a variety of perspectives, including those of young people who’ve migrated, programmatic actors, faith-based organizations, policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders.
Each webinar began and ended with reflections from young people who have lived the migration experience. In order to honor their stories while also protecting their identities, the forum incorporated scenes from Óyeme (“hear me” in Spanish), a play that was created by Imagination Stage with young people who journeyed from northern Central America to the DC metro area . The webinar conversations closed with recorded stories shared by migrant and asylum-seeking youth who recently arrived in the United States .
The forum did not seek to put forward definitive recommendations but rather to expand the conversation to include perspectives that are often left out. Effective programmatic and policy responses to children on the move must be attuned to the lived experiences of those who have migrated. They are the primary experts.
We are grateful for the more than 60 stakeholders who contributed to the webinars and blog series. To date, approximately 600 people have tuned into the webinars, and the blog posts have been accessed over 500 times.
- Migration is an innovative response to ineffective systems. When government services and civil society responses do not adequately protect young people and families from violence, extreme poverty, and food insecurity, migration within and across borders is a natural response to ameliorate untenable circumstances.
- Adversity and resilience coexist. Children experiencing migration are extraordinarily vulnerable, but they also demonstrate tremendous resilience, developing skills to navigate complexity and hardship. Their assets should be recognized by all stakeholders.
- Young people are part of the solution. Children and youth need to be engaged as partners in problem-solving. Their involvement in the development of programmatic and policy responses to the issues that affect them lead to more appropriate and sustainable responses. Creating opportunities for young people to share their views and experiences is not only good policy—it is critical to their resilience.
- Language matters. There is often a disconnect between the language used in policy and program response and that which is understood and communicated by young people who have lived the migration experience. For example, “migration” is not a word used among Indigenous communities in Guatemala. “Irregular migration” does not reflect the reality of communities where migration is an inevitable constant. “Smuggling” is understood as a criminal concept by law enforcement agencies but a means of protection for persons with limited rights and opportunities.
- It is possible to reframe the problem and the response. The dominant discourse around migration centers on law enforcement and border security. Children’s best interests are often a secondary consideration. Policies and funding could be shifted to prioritize coordinated child-sensitive approaches in countries of origin, along the migratory route, and in destination communities.
Part I: Innovating Protection for Children at Risk in the Americas
Webinar: March 30, 2022
Young people who embark on a migration journey do so for a variety of reasons. Some are fleeing violence and crime; others have been facing climate-induced disasters, food insecurity, and extreme poverty. Drivers may differ depending on area of origin, gender, and ethnicity. An overarching commonality, however, is age. Across the Americas, being young is the strongest predictor of an intention to migrate.
Hundreds of thousands of children are leaving their homes, either with family members or on their own, experiencing internal displacement and attempting to cross borders throughout the Americas. What the decision to leave home mean for children and youth? To what extent do the approaches of national and international governments and partners prioritize the perceptions and needs of young people who are inclined to migrate? What efforts are underway to help children and families feel rooted and safe in their communities of origin, before the migration journey begins?
As various stakeholders seek to address root causes of migration, it is important to consider what the decision to leave home means for children and youth. The first webinar and blog series addressed the extent to which the approaches of national and international governments and partners prioritize the perceptions and needs of young people who are inclined to migrate. Contributors reflected on efforts to help children and families feel rooted and safe in their communities of origin, before the migration journey begins.
Migration from Guatemala to the United States has risen dramatically in recent years, most of it stemming from poor, rural areas in the Western Highlands. The majority of children currently crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied are from Guatemala, and many are Indigenous Mayans. Migration has become an increasingly common pathway for these young people to escape extreme poverty and food insecurity, but it also exposes them to other risks, including separation from their families, Indigenous identity, and culture.
Juan José Hurtado is the executive director of Asociación Pop No’j in Guatemala, which focuses on protecting the rights and culture of the Mayan people, particularly in the context of migration. “We cannot talk about Indigenous peoples in Guatemala without considering migration,” said Hurtado.
Pop No’j recognizes that Indigenous migration is an inevitable result of desperate conditions in communities of origin. It is forced displacement caused by extreme poverty, with origins in colonization. “No one leaves their home because they want to… If there is no hope, the alternative is migration. Migration will not stop until the conditions that force people to leave change.” The organization is committed to the right of Indigenous peoples to stay, to migrate, and to return to communities of origin with dignity. Pop No’j accompanies children and young people in communities of origin, prior to migration and upon return, providing humanitarian aid, legal assistance, access to education and vocational training, and psychosocial and family reintegration support. Hurtado underscored that Indigenous identity, languages, and culture are protective factors that must be recognized and attended to at all stages of the migration journey.
Related Blog Posts
- Juan Edwin Pacay Mendoza and Maya Tz’utujil, "Wuqub' Tz'ikin (Seven Birds)"
- JXC Guatemala, "JXC Guatemala on Innovating Protection for Children at Risk in the Americas"
In Honduras, boys and girls experience unacceptably high levels of physical and sexual violence. In 2019, the government of Honduras launched the Violence Against Children and Youth Survey, the first of its kind in Latin America. The report included groundbreaking information on the intersections of violence against children–and the impact on migration. Mark Connolly, the UNICEF representative in Honduras, noted that “it is impossible to reduce migration without reducing violence.” In 2021, Honduras launched a National Action Plan to End Violence Against Children, an innovation at the policy level.
Connolly discussed efforts to develop a contextualized strategy for the interruption of homicide, femicide, and gender-based violence in 25 communities within the four most violent cities in Honduras. Working in partnership with Cure Violence, which uses a public health approach to preventing violence, the strategy focuses on strengthening the capacities of community-based organizations to identify risk factors and apply techniques to stop violence and prevent deaths by changing social norms and deescalating conflicts through cooperation, youth participation, and community mobilization. In 2021, the violence interruption model resolved nearly 4,000 community conflicts related to abuse, sexual exploitation and harassment, death threats, kidnappings, exploitation of girls and women, forced displacement, drug trafficking, and domestic violence. Without the interventions these conflicts may have resulted in femicides, homicides, and other serious crimes.
Related Blog Posts
Coordinating Faith-based Responses for Child Protection
For many young people on the move, faith is an important protective factor. Working with faith actors and utilizing faith-sensitive approaches to child protection is particularly fundamental in the Americas, where faith-based groups are often frontline responders.
The Alliance for the Protection of the Children is a multifaith and multi-country coalition of over 55 faith-based organizations and religious communities. It was created in 2017 to protect children on the move and other vulnerable children from violence, trafficking, gang recruitment, and organized crime. The work of the alliance addresses several of the root causes of migration and poverty with a geographical focus in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. The alliance recognizes and supports the role of faith actors in reducing risk factors that lead to the development of violent behavior in children or make it easier for them to get involved with or become victims of criminal groups. It works to increase protective factors, such as healthy lifestyles and environments, psychosocial services, as well as spiritual development. The alliance also aims to foster resilience in communities affected by violence.
Related Blog Post
- Eleonora Mura, “Coordinating Faith-Based Responses for Child Protection”
Strengthening National and Regional Protection Systems
While migration of young Central Americans across borders has received considerable attention, those who have been forced from their homes due to violence, extreme poverty, or national disasters and remain within the borders of their countries are largely invisible, despite their growing numbers.
María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, El Salvador’s minister of foreign affairs from 1999 to 2004, shared examples of new policies to address the needs of internally displaced populations across the region. In El Salvador, for instance, the Legislative Assembly passed the Special Law for the Care and Integral Protection of Victims of Violence in Conditions of Forced Displacement in January 2020. The law, the result of years of civil society activism, is aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other international standards that establish the rights of displaced people, including the right to request and receive humanitarian assistance, protection of the family unit, an adequate standard of living, and long-term solutions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the law will positively impact tens of thousands of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of gangs and organized crime.
El Salvador’s 2020 law reflects growing momentum across the region to recognize and respond to the phenomenon of internal displacement. In Honduras, where approximately 250,000 people have been displaced by violence, the National Congress is considering similar legislation as well as a penal code that would punish those who cause forced displacement due to violence and intimidation. Mexico is also developing legal frameworks to protect internally displaced populations. The Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework seeks to address forced displacement from a regional perspective, incorporating countries of origin, destination, and transit and working with a wide range of stakeholders to create a comprehensive and sustainable approach. It lists a number of actions and best practices in four areas: reception and admission measures; support for immediate and ongoing needs; support for host countries and communities; and enhanced opportunities for durable solutions.
Related Blog Post
- Pablo Aurelio Loredo Oyervidez, Karen Valladares, and María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, “Proposal for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Situations of Mobility”
Considering the Role of U.S. Foreign Assistance
Nikki Enersen, the Children, Youth and Families Team Lead at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) highlighted three new policies that guide U.S. government foreign assistance and the agency’s response in northern Central America: the U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America, USAID’s Local Capacity Development Policy, and the recently revised Youth in Development Policy.
In accordance with these strategic documents, in November 2021, USAID launched a five-year, $300 million initiative, Centroamérica Local, to empower local organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to address the drivers of irregular migration to the United States and advance the Biden-Harris administration’s Root Causes Strategy. The strategy acknowledges that irregular migration from Central America is the result of a complex interrelated system of factors, focusing on short- and long-term impediments to peaceful, prosperous and stable communities. It aims to reduce poverty by creating jobs and training youth for these opportunities–addressing both supply and demand. It seeks to improve citizen security and anti-gang activities by improving transparency and equity in governance and addressing community violence. USAID programs also focus on broader issues, including climate change, gender, and ethnic inequalities, all of which contribute to the decision many make to seek safety and economic stability elsewhere. USAID’s objectives in Central America include increasing opportunities and improving well-being for marginalized citizens who do not feel that they are able to live their best lives at home. This involves making real change in development outcomes as well as in the perceptions of well-being. 
Related Blog Posts
- Benjamin Ilka and Jose Guillermo Lopez, “Inclusive Development Which Advances America’s Interests and Values”
- Changing the Way We Care, “Keeping Children and Families in Guatemala Safe and Rooted”
Children and families continue to travel between South and Central America, Mexico, and the United States in record numbers. Many experience abuse, exploitation, detention, deprivation, and discrimination along their migration journeys. How young people find protection along the migration corridor and at the border? What strategies do children on the move develop to increase their sense of safety and protection? How can policies and programs respond to the lived experiences of children on the move?
Children and families continue to travel between South and Central America, Mexico, and the United States in record numbers. International law underscores that all children have a right to safety and to access protection, seek asylum, and remain and reunite with family members. National, state, and local governments have the responsibility to protect children and families on the move, regardless of where they are from or where they are going. However, child welfare and protection systems—already fragile prior to the COVID-19 pandemic—have been overwhelmed and unable to respond to the scale of need. Civil society and community-based responses are key to building and sustaining protective factors for children and families along the migratory route, but these are also underfunded and overcapacity.
The second webinar and blog series focused on how young people find protection along the migration corridor and at the border. Contributors reflected on the strategies children on the move develop to increase their sense of safety and protection and what can be done to support and learn from these.
Upholding the Right to Be and Belong
Migration offers children and young people the opportunity to access rights, services, and spaces of independence, strengthening their agency and allowing them to contribute to the well-being of their families and communities. It holds the potential to be an empowerment strategy. Yet, the decision to migrate is often linked to multiple systems of oppression and violence that begin in communities of origin, intensify along the migratory journey, and continue in destination and return communities–a circle of violence. Whether voluntary or forced, the return to their home country is often a traumatic experience that involves navigating new obstacles related to re-entering community life, sometimes without the necessary identity documents. Rodrigo Barraza, the regional co-director for the Americas with Global Fund for Children, explained, “They should have a multiplied sense of belonging, but they end up with no identity at all.” Immigration is a process in which young people attempt to find security but encounter precarity again and again.
Barraza shared learning from a multi-country initiative, the Right to Be and Belong, which has engaged 14 local partner organizations working in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States to promote youth leadership, community education, intercultural interaction, and the rights of young migrants. To date, more than 12,000 young people have been engaged in the initiative. Barraza offered three recommendations for those working with children and youth on the move:
- Recognize young migrants’ sense of agency and their ongoing efforts to change and improve their situations;
- Create welcoming spaces co-designed by migrant children and youth that include access to integrated services, as well as allow them to reinforce their sense of individual and collective belonging–a starting point for comprehensive and long-term protection strategies;
- Coordinate protection efforts on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and create a collaborative network of organizations that support children and adolescents throughout their migratory journey. “Protection is always a collective responsibility.”
Related Blog Posts
- Rodrigo Barraza, “The Right to Be and Belong: (Re)imagining Protection for Migrant Children and Youth in the Americas”
- Deanna Johnson and Kamilah Morain, "Migrant Children Access Education in Trinidad and Tobago through PADF’s Innovative Programming"
- Pauina Olvera Cañez, "Espacio Migrante"
Strengthening Laws for Child Protection in Mexico
Children and adolescents make up approximately 30 percent of the migrant and asylum-seeking population in Mexico. Roughly half of these young people are unaccompanied, and most are hoping to reunify with family members in the United States.
Ana Saiz is the director general of Sin Fronteras, a Mexican civil society organization that promotes the protection and defense of migrants’ human rights. A lawyer, she noted that child protection laws have been applied differently to Mexican and migrant children. For example, Mexico’s 2014 Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents prohibited the detention of children and adolescents in general but young migrants were still regularly detained. Mexico enacted changes to its immigration law in late 2020, prohibiting the detention of migrant children and their adult companions. Beginning in January 2021, the Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents was updated to ensure equal treatment for Mexican and migrant children and youth. Even so, detention of migrant children and adolescents continues to occur.
Of further concern, Saiz explained that the National System for Integral Family Development, the Mexican institution mandated to focus on family welfare, is not specifically designed to address the complex needs of children on the move. For instance, child migrants who may be traveling with aggressors within their own family would benefit from a more child-focused protection response. Saiz recommended enhancing protection for children on the move by allowing international experts to monitor and report on the situation of migrant children and adolescents in Mexico. She also suggested replicating the Fe y Alegría model, an international network of local organizations that mobilize and leverage the support of schools, teachers, communities, and radio to promote comprehensive child protection.
Related Blog Post
- Andrea Tanco, Maria Jesus Mora, and Daniela Hall, “Strengthening Mexico’s Protection Landscape for Migrant Children: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead”
Coordinating a Whole-of-government Approach
Ashley Feasley, director for transborder security at the National Security Council, described the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to Central American migration, beginning with efforts to address the root causes that lead young people to leave their homes. U.S. foreign assistance is channeling increased levels of funding to local communities with a goal of preventing migration in the first place. Some of these efforts include support for expanding child welfare and protection systems in partner countries, most notably in Guatemala and Mexico.
The administration is also working to improve reception and care for migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Current efforts include training officials in trafficking prevention, reducing the time children spend in U.S. custody , increasing access to legal and social services, and establishing safe and legal pathways for juveniles. Feasley noted that the first encounter with U.S. government officials at the border can be intimidating for young people: “We’ve really worked to improve the time in custody, understanding that the Department of Homeland Security is a law enforcement agency. They are not child welfare experts… they are there to do the work of securing the border.”
Gabriella Sanchez researches migration-related crimes, with a focus on migrant smuggling and human trafficking. As an ethnographer, she relies on participatory and community-based methodologies and attempts to understand smuggling from the perspective of those who participate in and/or facilitate the practice. Sanchez suggested that by focusing on the criminal aspect of smuggling, prioritizing law enforcement and security perspectives, we lose sight of what the practice means to the young people and families who invest in and negotiate or work with smugglers, or coyotes. For many of them, smuggling is a chance to attain a level of protection that they would otherwise not have.
Children and youth on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border help smuggle people into the United States. For most of them, it serves as an occasional job that they do alongside many others. Sanchez noted that the issue of young people’s involvement in smuggling is often framed within the context of recruitment by transnational crime and drug trafficking organizations: “I’m not ignoring that dimension, but that makes invisible the desire and agency of the children. On both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, participating in smuggling is one of the very few jobs that they have available and can take advantage of their social capital and knowledge of the landscape.”
To address smuggling effectively, it is critical that young people engaged in the practice inform programmatic and policy solutions. “When we don’t listen to the children and what they have to say, we lack the paths to create policy that can address the situations that they are facing on the ground. Any response that is crafted–any policy solution that is articulated to address some of the challenges that children face–has to put people at the center of the discussion. We have to keep and mind the way they understand and mobilize risk and safety for their own well-being and that of their families.”
Mitigating Risk at the Border
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is often a first point of contact for migrants when they are released from immigration detention centers in Texas. The Humanitarian Respite Center was established as a direct response to the border crisis in 2014 and has since served more than 100,000 asylum-seekers fleeing violence, crime, exploitation, and extreme poverty. The center provides asylum-seekers a welcoming space to rest, eat, shower, and sleep before they continue their journey into the United States.
Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., is the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville. In addition to overseeing a frontline humanitarian response, Sr. Norma is a formidable advocate for the rights and protection of migrant and asylum-seekers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  She continues to express concern about the danger and deep vulnerability experienced by children and families along the border in Mexico and the United States, noting that the absence of effective protection systems has left children and families to fend for themselves against gangs and traffickers. She emphasized that policies that focus on immigration deterrence have done little to protect children and families. Current policies have also led to unnecessary and preventable child separation.
“A lot of times children are not unaccompanied and they end up being separated or sent back to Mexico because they come with someone other than a parent. If they come with grandma or an older brother, it is still family, but they get separated. Or, a child who just turned 18 on the day that the family crossed over, they are separated. The effort to keep the family together is so essential… It should be something that is established in policy so families don’t go through the hardship of separation.” – Sister Norma Pimentel
Related Blog Post
- Katharine Donato and Elizabeth Ferris, “Mobilizing a Constituency for Refugee and Migrant Children: Experiential Learning in Centennial Lab Course at Georgetown”
Managing Migrant Flows in Mexico
Mexico is a country of origin, transit, return, and destination for migrants and asylum-seekers. It is currently one of the most important migration corridors in the world. Migratory flows continue to increase, particularly among children. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 30,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2020. The number increased by 340 percent the following year, with 147,000 minors apprehended. Unaccompanied children comprised 25 percent of those apprehended at the border in fiscal year 2021. Most of these children come from northern Central America, but also Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, as well as countries in Africa and Asia.
Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mexico noted that even in the midst of compounding trauma, young migrants exhibit a great deal of resilience. IOM recognizes the sense of agency that children and youth develop throughout their journeys and seeks to build on it by creating safe spaces and temporary shelters for children and families on the move where they can access medical care, psychosocial support, recreational activities, and timely and reliable information. IOM also works to facilitate access to legal identity documents, a critical form of protection: “Very few entities in Mexico are helping migrant families access identity documents. The right to identity is extremely important. Passports, birth certificates–these are key for migrant children–without these, they are denied services.” The agency provides training to immigration authorities to promote child-sensitive immigration policies and procedures in alignment with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Related Blog Post
- Cesia Chavarría and Juan Manuel Ramirez, “The “Filter Hotel": A Protective Space for Migrant Families on the U.S.-Mexico Border”
The number of young people fleeing high levels of violence, crime, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border reached a 20-year high in the U.S. government’s fiscal year 2021. Communities across the country are challenged to meet the needs of newcomer children and youth, often with little federal or state support. What efforts are underway to help them find protection and stability in their new communities? Who is responsible for providing support?
The number of young people fleeing high levels of violence, crime, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border reached a 20-year high in the U.S. government’s fiscal year 2021. This included a record number of children who entered the United States unaccompanied. This is not just a temporary phase; it is a trend that is likely to continue as children across the Americas continue to face a cascade of risks. Many newly arriving migrant and asylum-seeking children reunify with parents or sponsors in the United States after extended periods of separation. Most need significant support upon their release from federal custody and as they navigate their new lives in the United States. Communities across the country are challenged to meet the needs of newcomer children and youth, often with little federal or state support.
The third webinar and blog series considered the needs of migrant and asylum-seeking children and youth in the United States and those who are mobilizing efforts to help them find protection and stability in their new communities.
Providing Child-centered Services in the United States
Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) supports children on the move across the Americas at all stages of the journey–from countries of origin, along the migratory route, and in U.S. communities, ensuring trauma-informed and resilience-oriented programming at all points of encounter with young people experiencing migration. KIND advocates for an immigration system with child-centered policies and procedures that embrace all children, no matter where they are from.
Once released from U.S. custody into the care of a sponsor, unaccompanied children need access to services to help them address the trauma they may have experienced and integrate into their new communities. Key assistance includes legal support, medical and mental health services, help with school enrollment, parent education and support, and family counseling.
Wendy Miron, KIND’s senior director of social services, emphasized the importance of identifying and meeting the needs of newly arrived migrant and asylum-seeking children at the local level and linking these initiatives with strategic policy efforts.  Miron noted that when unaccompanied children are released from federal government custody to family members or other sponsors, they often lack forms of valid identification, making it difficult to access services and thrive in the United States. KIND has therefore advocated for expanded access to state and municipal identification documents to facilitate access to services.
Miron emphasized the importance of working with school districts to support newly arriving migrant and asylum-seeking children: “Schools really need information about unaccompanied minors. What are their needs? How do we identify them? As we know, ‘unaccompanied minor’ is a legal term. We don’t always know that a child is an unaccompanied minor, and they themselves don’t identify as such.” KIND worked with the Oakland Unified School District, a model for innovative approaches to welcoming newcomers and ensuring they are supported to succeed educationally, to host a national convening that brought together teachers, school board members, county officials, students who arrived in the United States unaccompanied, and other stakeholders from across the country to share promising practices.
Related Blog Posts
- Wendy Young, "Innovating Protection for Migrant and Asylum-Seeking Children"
- Emily Bartholomew “Immigrant Families Belong Together”
Coordinating at the County Level
Federal and state support for and coordination between states and counties with large numbers of newly arriving migrant and asylum-seeking children and families is minimal. The vast majority–84 percent–of federal program costs for unaccompanied migrant children are spent on the first 30 to 60 days after a child’s arrival in the United States—when they are in federal custody. Less than 16 percent is spent on the following months or years, when they are adjusting to life in U.S. communities. As a result, local responses vary across the country, with few opportunities for counties, cities, and school districts to learn from one another and share best practices.
Diego Uriburu is the executive director and co-founder of Identity, a non-profit serving on the front lines of the response to newly arriving young people in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the highest receiving areas in the country for unaccompanied migrant children released to sponsors. He described the county’s effort to attend to the needs of newcomer youth through expanded health, mental health, school and after-school programming, legal assistance, and other services. Without strategic guidance from federal agencies or a coordination mechanism in place to share learning and best practices with other high-receiving counties, the county has been innovating its own path forward.
Uriburu described coordination efforts between county government, the public school district, and community partners who have been leading this work for decades. Together, partners developed a six-part strategy—the Bienvenidos Initiative—focusing on outreach and communications; navigation and case management; education and school-based services; legal orientation and service provision; positive youth development and recreation; and anti-discrimination, public safety, and trafficking prevention. In July 2021, the Montgomery County Council's joint Health and Human Services and Education and Culture Committee approved more than 5 million dollars in supplemental funding to support newly arriving migrant and asylum-seeking children, youth, and families through coordinated services.
Related Blog Posts
- Marc Elrich, Gabe Albornoz, and Gillian Huebner, “The Case of One County”
- Eric Macias, “’Leaving school was necessary’: Undocumented Youth Perspectives on Dropping-Out of School”
- Alondra Andrade, “Community Solutions”
Recognizing Indigeneity in the United States
The majority of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are from Guatemala, a majority Indigenous country. Many are Maya, not Hispanic or Latino. They speak Indigenous languages–an important truth that often goes unrecognized at border facilities, in receiving communities, and public schools.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez is Maya Mam and the executive director of the International Mayan League, which works closely with Indigenous communities in the U.S. diaspora and Guatemala to assert their right to exist. She noted that it is impossible to understand the present without understanding the past: Indigenous migration and resettlement are tied to a history of colonialism and imperialism. The International Mayan League brings an Indigenous response to the issue, supporting Maya communities under attack in Guatemala as a way of addressing root drivers of forced migration as well as organizing on behalf of Maya families in destination areas throughout the diaspora.
Cabrera Lopez quoted a former Maya Mam child migrant in the United States, “We are invisible; the greater community does not even know we exist or are here.” Cabrera Lopez added, “Indigenous identity is a key factor of both external and internal erasure by the dominant society that does not recognize us. Internally, it has been a way to preserve ourselves for survival. We as peoples have been persecuted for more than 500 years because we are Indigenous, one of the ways we have survived is to hide our identity.”
Support for Indigenous newcomers in resettlement communities is primarily organized by the Indigenous communities themselves. Cabrera Lopez emphasized the need for allies and advocates to recognize, elevate, and support these efforts. She also stressed the importance of improving data collection to counter exclusion and acknowledge that Indigenous people exist and are part of our communities. Without quality disaggregated data, the rights of Indigenous peoples, including their language needs, are not met. Indigenous people and organizations must be included in the all aspects of the migration policy and programmatic response–not as an afterthought, but as a critical part of the design and planning processes.
Related Blog Post
- Juanita Cabrera Lopez, Dr. Emil’ Keme, and Lorena Brady, “Maya Peoples' Resurgence Across Settler Colonial Borders”
Mobilizing Faith Actors in the United States to Support Children on the Move
Once processed by border authorities, unaccompanied children are transferred to residential care sites operated under the auspices of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is responsible for providing housing and care commensurate with the child’s safety and emotional and physical needs, including medical care, education, and other services, and identifying and vetting sponsors (usually family members) to whom the child may be safely released while awaiting immigration proceedings.  The system of care for unaccompanied children under ORR includes a diverse network of implementing partners with a continuum of placement options for unaccompanied children, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS).
Kathleen Goss, associate director for foster care with USCCB/MRS, described the national network of faith-based providers addressing the needs of refugee and other migrating youth, including unaccompanied children from Central America. USCCB’s providers are in every region of the continental United States and include 17 agencies providing foster care services across 13 states and 16 agencies providing family reunification services across 11 states. The Safe Passages program aims to prepare children who crossed the border alone and their caregivers for success after reunification. Children in the program receive case management and access to medical, dental, vision, and mental health care; individualized education; and legal screenings.
Goss underscored the value of ongoing partnership and collaboration with faith-based partners. “Our providers really seek to integrate faith into the care for these young people and their families–always seeing their dignity as persons, seeing their resiliency and working to meet their needs and support them within the context of their strengths.” She added, “The information that our faith partners share really helps us frame our advocacy. It informs us on the impact that various policies have on migrating people, on families and young people in country of origin as well as along the journey. It helps raise up the stories of asylum-seekers.” USCCB has collaborated with faith-based partners to raise concerns about the dangers of the Migrant Protection Protocols and the Zero Tolerance policy.  USCCB also participates in the Vatican Section on Migrants and Refugees to uphold principles that support people on the move.
Related Blog Posts
- Kathleen Goss and Johanna Neece, “Safe Passages: A Path Towards Permanency”
- Brett Stark, Esq., Sofia Linarte, Josephine Herman, Esq., and Elizabeth Wood, “Continuum of Care to Terra Firma: Providing Legal, Medical, and Mental Health Protection to Unaccompanied and Indigenous Immigrant Youth”
Scaling Up Post-release Services
The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides resources and services for particularly vulnerable children once they are released from federal custody. Approximately 20 percent of unaccompanied children released to sponsors receive federally-funded post-release services (PRS), which include assistance connecting children and their sponsors to community-based resources.
Matt Haygood is the director of children’s services at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), which is one of 15 federally-funded grantees implementing home study and post-release services programs for unaccompanied children. Referrals for PRS are made by ORR, prior to the child’s release from federal custody. Community-based providers cannot refer children to these services, even if they are identified as needing additional support. Provision of PRS is short-term, typically 90 days. Haygood noted, “We’ve got a lot to do in a short period of time.”
There have long been calls to expand access to PRS. Yet, even with a pledge to extend coverage to all unaccompanied children released to sponsors by 2023, thousands of children who are currently eligible remain on waitlists for services. Haygood stressed that provision of post-release services would benefit from further evaluation: “Post-release services have only been around and federally funded for about a decade… There hasn’t been a lot of research or funding dedicated to figuring out what is the best model, what is the best way to approach this, and how can we be most effective with our resources?”
Related Blog Post
- Jonathan Beier and Essey Workie, “Building Unaccompanied Children’s Resilience through Healthy Relationships in Their Destination Communities”
Reimagining Reception and Care for Children on the Move
Providing child-sensitive and adequate reception and care for the large and growing number of children on the move around the world, particularly those who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents or primary caregivers, is a global concern and an important priority for UNICEF. Verena Knaus is UNICEF’s global lead on migration and displacement. Her work brings together the worlds of international child rights and protection, immigration, and domestic child welfare. Knaus asked, “How do we make sure that whatever we do is actually centered around what children need and not so much centered around what institutions or organizations usually do?”
UNICEF urges partners to consider how reception, care, and services for unaccompanied migrant children in the United States and across the region can be built around the best interests of each child. Knaus recommended reimagining the immigration response system–moving away from a primary focus on border enforcement to an approach that is centered on what children need. This includes ensuring that anyone coming into contact with a child on the move in an official capacity is equipped to consider and act in accordance with the child’s best interest. Investments also need to be rethought, redirecting funds from immigration detention to family- and community-based supports. Most importantly, the response to children on the move must be designed with and informed by young people who have lived the migration experience.
Related Blog Post
 Imagination Stage created Óyeme in 2014 in response to the large number of migrant and asylum-seeking youth from Central America arriving in the county. It began as a small afterschool program—providing space for newcomer youth to explore their stories and share their experiences in a culturally-sensitive and trauma-informed way. Over time, the students helped playwright Miriam Gonzales create the play Óyeme, the Beautiful. The production follows a group of teens from Central America who are making the dangerous trek across the border to the Washington, DC, region. The play helps build awareness and empathy within the broader community. As a result of Imagination Stage’s partnership with Montgomery County and D.C. Public Schools, Óyeme workshops continue to take place in more than 25 English Language Learner classrooms during the school day, and the play has reached more than 7,000 audience members.
 The stories in these audio clips were shared by migrant and asylum-seeking youth who recently arrived in Montgomery County, Maryland. Their stories are narrated by voice actors to protect their identity. The young people are involved with Identity, a local, community-based organization that works with thousands of Latino and other underserved young people and their families living in high poverty neighborhoods across Montgomery County after school. The voice actors work with Imagination Stage’s Theatre for Change program, which uses theatre productions and educational workshops to bridge cultural divides and lift up underrepresented voices.
 Administrator Power officially launched USAID’s Northern Triangle Task Force on May 4, 2021 in response to President Biden’s February 2, 2021 Executive Order.
 As required by the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008, Section 235(b)(3) on Transfers of Unaccompanied Alien Children: “Except in the case of exceptional circumstances, any department or agency of the Federal Government that has an unaccompanied alien child in custody shall transfer the custody of such child to the Secretary of Health and Human Services not later than 72 hours after determining that such child is an unaccompanied alien child.” See Public Law 110-457.
 On March 7, 2022, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a final rule to align the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) classification with existing federal statutes and clarify SIJ eligibility criteria and evidentiary requirements to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the program.
 Sister Normal Pimentel, M.J., is featured in Oh Mercy, a documentary film by Robert Bilheimer about thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers from Central America on both sides of the Rio Grande.
 KIND. 2020. KIND Blueprint: Concrete Steps to Protect Unaccompanied Children on the Move. The Blueprint provides guidance on how the U.S. government should uphold its responsibility to treat unaccompanied children humanely and in accordance with the law.
 ORR is required to promptly place unaccompanied children in its custody in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child. See United States Public Law 110-457: 8 U.S.C. § 1232(c)(2)(A). See also United States Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. Office of Refugee Resettlement. 2022. ORR Unaccompanied Children Program Policy Guide.
 On March 21, 2022, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), and Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) filed an amicus curiae brief in Biden v. Texas. The brief argued that Migrant Protection Protocol is immoral because it disregards the God-given dignity of those enrolled, contrary to Catholic social teaching, and illegal because it violates the United States’ non-refoulement obligations under U.S. and international law. The widely accepted principle of non-refoulement prohibits the practice of returning refugees and asylum seekers to any territory where they are likely to face threats to their life or freedom based on certain characteristics.
Collaborative Design Team
Our collaborative design team is represented by Georgetown’s Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues and Institute for the Study of International Migration, UNICEF, Global Fund for Children and its network of local civil society organizations on both sides of the border, and two youth-serving organizations in the DC metro area, Identity and Imagination Stage/¡Óyeme!
Rodrigo Barraza, regional co-director for the Americas, Global Fund for Children
Elizabeth Ferris, research professor, Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration
Rhonda Fleischer, program specialist, migration, UNICEF
Fresia Guzman, program director, Identity
Gillian Huebner, executive director, Georgetown University Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues
Joanne Seelig, artistic director, Imagination Stage
Nickii Wantakan Arcado, graduate student assistant, Georgetown University Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues
Kelly Yzique-Zea, manager, migration, child protection and domestic advocacy, UNICEF USA
Contributors to the Forum
The Collaborative Forum featured contributions by community leaders, policy analysts, non-profit workers, scholars, researchers, and more.
Gabe Albornoz, president, Montgomery County Council
Alondra Andrade, community engagement coordinator, Tahirih Justice Center
Rodrigo Barraza, regional co-director for the Americas, Global Fund for Children
Emily Bartholomew, J.D., LL.M.
Jonathan Beier, associate policy analyst, human services initiative, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Lorena Brady, policy and program manager, International Mayan League
María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, former minister of foreign affairs, El Salvador
Luciano Cadoni, program officer for the rights of the child, Church World Service
Paulina Olvera Cañez, founder and director, Espacio Migrante
Changing the Way We Care
Cesia Chavarría, communications assistant, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Mark Connolly, representative, UNICEF/Honduras
Katharine Donato, Donald G. Herzberg professor of international migration, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Marc Elrich, chief executive, Montgomery County, Maryland
Nikki Enersen, foreign service officer, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
Marisa O. Ensor, adjunct lecturer, Georgetown University Justice and Peace Studies Program
Ashley Feasley, director for transborder security, National Security Council
Elizabeth Ferris, research professor, Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration
Luis Alberto Garcia, VisualMente
Kathleen Goss, associate director for foster care, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS)
Daniela Hall, Demetrios G. Papademetriou young scholar, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Matt Haygood, director of children’s services, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)
Josephine Herman, Esq., staff attorney, Catholic Charities Community Services
Gillian Huebner, executive director, Georgetown University Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues
Juan José Hurtado, executive director, Asociación Pop No’j
Benjamin Ilka, creative director, USAID/Guatemala
Deanna Johnson, program coordinator/migration, Pan American Development Foundation
Emil’ Keme, professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Verena Knaus, global lead on migration and displacement, UNICEF
Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission, International Organization for Migration (IOM)/Mexico
Sofia Linarte, managing attorney, unaccompanied minors program, Catholic Charities New York
José Guillermo Lopez, regional project management specialist, USAID/Guatemala
Juanita Cabrera Lopez, executive director, International Mayan League
Eric Macias, Ph.D. candidate, State University of New York at Albany
Juan Edwin Pacay Mendoza, coordinator of the Kajib’ Ix Program, Vida Digna Collective Association
Wendy Miron, senior director of social services, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
Maria Jesus Mora, research assistant, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Kamilah Morain, deputy director for Trinidad and Tobago, Pan American Development Foundation
Eleonora Mura, coordinator partnerships and resource mobilization, Alliance for the Protection of Children
Johanna Neece, program specialist for the foster care team, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS)
Pablo Aurelio Loredo Oyervidez, monitoring and evaluation officer for the Americas, International Detention Coalition
Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J., executive director, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley
Juan Manuel Ramirez, communications assistant, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Ana Saiz, director general, Sin Fronteras
Gabriella Sanchez, border control and migration enforcement scholar
Joanne Seelig, artistic director of education and Theatre for Change, Imagination Stage
Brett Stark, Esq., co-founder, Terra Firma at Catholic Charities New York
Andrea Tanco, strategic advisor to the president and associate policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Maya Tz’utujil, family-community organizer
Diego Uriburu, executive director and co-founder, Identity
Karen Valladares, executive director, National Forum for Migration/Honduras
Elizabeth Wood, supervising attorney, unaccompanied minors program, Catholic Charities New York
Essey Workie, director, human services initiative, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Wendy Young, president, Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)