Moving Beyond Trauma: Child Migrants and Refugees in the United States

The U.S. Border Patrol will have intercepted an estimated 90,000 children without any sort of legal protective status by the end of 2016. These are mostly traumatized children who are fleeing violence in their home countries, often without an adult.

In a new report, “Moving Beyond Trauma: Child Migrants and Refugees in the United States,” researchers at Child Trends look at the most recent data available on these immigrant children, their experiences of trauma and the benefits they may or may not receive upon arrival in the U.S. depending on their legal status.

The 90,000 children highlighted by the report are not automatically granted refugee status, and as a result are “subject to a chain of administrative procedures that offers few protections and may include detention for prolonged periods; this presents a great many hazards to their well-being—including re-traumatization,” the report reads.

In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data, according to the report, there were 24,647 refugee arrivals who were younger than 18 (35 percent of the total). Ten percent of refugee arrivals were younger than 5, and 26 percent were between 5 and 17.

In 2015, about 1,300 unaccompanied children who were eligible for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program were placed in foster care and received related services.

Immigrant children, like other children in foster care, often experience trauma, including toxic stress, as a result of being separated from their parents. Toxic stress can impact a child’s brain function, impair cognitive, social and emotional skills and compromise the child’s health in the long run.

The report defines a refugee as “A child or adult who, prior to arrival in the United States, is determined to have ‘a well-founded fear of persecution’ in the country of which he or she is a citizen, who meets the additional criteria of being of ‘special humanitarian concern to the United States,’ and who is not considered to present a public health, criminal, or national security risk.”

An asylee, per the report, is a child or adult who meets the criteria for refugee status, but who is already in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry.

And an unaccompanied child is defined in the report as “a child traveling without a parent or adult guardian, and without legal authorization, who is apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol.”

An estimated 37,500 children will be granted refugee or asylee status in 2016, the report says.

Being designated as an unaccompanied immigrant, a refugee or an asylee determines what services an individual may receive upon entering the U.S. As a refugee, an adult is eligible for employment and training programs, medical assistance and other services within 30-90 days of arrival, and must apply for citizenship in one year.

According to the report, unaccompanied children who are not deemed refugees or asylees are eligible for public education, subsidized school meals and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, but they are not eligible for the following:

  • Health insurance through the Affordable Care Act
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF)
  • Medicaid
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Child care subsidy (Child Care Development Fund)
  • Early intervention services for children with developmental disabilities
Table showing the different benefits available depending on an individual's classification. Source: Moving Through Trauma Report, Child Trends.

Table showing the different benefits available depending on an individual’s classification. Source: Moving Beyond Trauma Report, Child Trends.

The U.S. Border Patrol – an agency described as “beset by corruption problems and excessive force complaints” by Politico in 2014 – is often the first point of contact for unaccompanied, traumatized children, underscoring the need for trauma sensitivity among this particular group of law enforcement officers.

The agency is also charged with the task of screening unaccompanied children to detect whether they are being trafficked, the report says. However, a 2015 Government Accountability Office report found that “agents made inconsistent screening decisions, had varying levels of awareness about how they were to assess certain screening criteria, and did not consistently document the rationales for their decisions.”

Unaccompanied children apprehended by the Border Patrol are turned over to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The children are housed in temporary ORR-funded shelters and are then released to sponsors – often relatives, but sometimes traffickers, a 2014 investigation found – or they may linger in the ORR shelters for months.

The report points out that home studies of sponsors taking in these children are conducted in fewer than five percent of cases, raising the question of how qualified these sponsors are and how children with traumatic backgrounds are faring in their care.

The states with the highest numbers of unaccompanied children who were released to sponsors in FY 2015 were California (3,576), Texas (3,209), Florida (2,885), New York (2,615), Maryland (1,784), Virginia (1,676), and New Jersey (1,440).

The Child Trends report makes recommendations for better serving immigrant children who have been exposed to trauma.

It suggests that Border Patrol agents undergo trauma-informed training to better understand and interact with unaccompanied migrant children, many of whom have an elevated risk for mental illness and difficulties with concentration and regulation of emotions. It also recommends that eligibility for services made available to refugee children and their families should be extended to unaccompanied children and family unit members applying for asylum.

Other recommendations are related to policymaking and data collection.

Read the full report here.

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