Problems with the Actual Execution of Laws for Unaccompanied Alien Children

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Legal Aid
  • Healthcare and Shelter
  • Education
  • Conclusion


With illegal immigration increasingly in the spotlight since President Trump took office, and in light of the graphic images of detained children in cages, people are beginning to question the legality of the government’s actions. Furthermore, they ask, what happens to unaccompanied alien children (UACs) after they are detained? Why aren’t they getting the resources they need? The environment they are placed in must meet U.S. and international regulations, and it is legally required they be given proper healthcare and education by the government. Conspicuously, legal aid is missing from the list of mandated resources. Yet, according to Professor Susan J. Terrio, author of a book about UACs, the U.S. “stripped the minors of basic constitutional protections and exposed them to abuse, and the outsourcing of the violent interdiction. This may not be the intention of the government, but rather a UACs come to the U.S. escaping violence and looking for a better life, but there are many that enter the States each year, and it puts a strain on government resources, as well as the non-profit programs that children are outsourced to. As a result, UACs are unable to receive the care they need. Only after close examination of the discrepancies between law and reality can further action be taken to better accommodate UACs.

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Legal Aid

Upon entry to the U.S., many children are detained by the government, and some must attend deportation hearings. According to the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit founded in 1987 to advocate for fair immigration policies, children “are not provided government-appointed counsel to represent them in immigration court”. This means that UACs are often unrepresented, despite the non-profit organizations that exist out there to connect them with to pro-bono attorneys, because there are too many UACs. On the other hand, the prosecuting side of the government is always represented by an attorney trained in immigration law. The imbalance in these cases has inspired good number of bills to mandate representation, including the Unaccompanied Alien Children Protection Act of 2005, but none have yet to be passed. Professor W. Binford, director of the Clinical Law Program at Williamette University College of Law, argues that alien children should get legal representation from the government, because “[i]f a grown man has the right to government-funded legal counsel because he has the cognitive abilities of a two-year-old, should not a[n actual] two year old, especially one lacking adult care?”. To provide lawyers for each UAC would be incredibly difficult and expensive, and would increase a strain on resources. However, I believe that in conjunction with the nonprofits already in existence, legal aid for UACs can be mandated and enforced, although a further examination of monetary resources may be needed. If there are not enough funds, a filter system could be set up to give younger or more vulnerable UACs available attorneys.

Healthcare and Shelter

An important right detained minors have is the right to healthcare — yet, the institutions responsible for it have failed to provide. UACs are given to the ORR, and according to the ORR’s website, they are supposed to provide the UACs with adequate mental and physical healthcare. Many UACs are transferred into the foster care system until a sponsor is found. However, the foster care system has flaws, and sometimes children are placed into abusive families, furthering any existing mental trauma. In the year 2016, the Children’s Bureau estimated that 676,000 children were a victim of abuse in their foster homes, but is yet only about 20% of those in care. It is important to note that the distinction between UACs and other children is not made. According to the ORR’s website, 48% — almost half — of all UACs are fleeing gang violence when they come to the U.S. This strongly implies that most of them come with some sort of mental trauma from the gang violence where they lived, and this can manifest as violent or explosive behavior, and strain environments where there are many UACs, spreading mental trauma and worsening it in others. There truly is no real solution to this, but having more well-trained therapists who not only can analyze the UACs but can connect with them on a deeper level would help, although resources are already short in this regard. A similar system to the proposed attorney system could be set up, except with therapists.


The final problem in handling UACs is education — many come to the United States speaking little to no English, but according to a historical decision in 1982, they have as much of a right to K-12 education as natural-born kids. How are we dealing with this major hurdle? According to Jorene Soto, attorney advisor to the U.S Department Justice, not well. She claims that since Flores v Reno, what little action that had been taken has not been forgotten, and language programs to cross the language barrier many UACs are few and far between. However, this claim was made in 2001, before the INS was even dissolved. Currently, both the ORR and the U.S. Department of Education agree that the law has been upheld, and that UACs are receiving educational services, but they do not go into further detail.

As a government site, they are biased towards themselves and would likely not admit any of their shortcomings on the site. However, the New Yorker contends that the conditions UACs are placed in in terms of educational environment is lacking resources — this includes certified teachers, and teachers who are capable of speaking both English and Spanish, the language most UACs speak. In addition, new problems arise from the high turnover rate. Curriculum is repeated often, and there is a wide variety of ages and therefore comprehension ability in one class. This makes teaching difficult, regardless of the existing language barrier. Most UACs do not stay in one place long enough to learn anything. The struggle to create a curriculum that UACs can learn from despite their movements and language barrier has been debated, but I believe that with the use of technology, this problem could be solved. The plan would be to write different level curriculums that fit what is required by law, with Spanish and alternate language versions, and an English-learning component. This would be on a website, and each UAC would have an account. Thus, it would not matter what facility the UACs were in, as with internet access the curriculum could be reached, with people at each facility making check-ups on progress and helping those falling behind. In order to realize this, an analysis of resources must be conducted. The number of teachers of needed may not be as great, as most of the teaching would be online, with aid only if necessary. Overall, this plan is quite plausible, and could easily be scaled to accommodate a large number of UACs.


As examined, there still remain problems with the actual execution of laws written to provide for UACs, as well as maintaining standard set, and it is primarily because of a shortage of resources. Proposed are solutions to redistribute or use resources to better accommodate UACs. To ease or solve to problem of a shortage of attorneys for UACs, there need be more available attorneys; however, there is not yet a law that mandates that, and to maintain a power balance, one ought to be passed. In terms of healthcare, UACs tend to need more mental therapy than physical, which also calls for a larger amount of human resources. Finally, a new program to educate UACs could easily be realized. The final step to achieving all through of these plans is to convince the ORR and related government agencies to act on it. This would be a difficult job and depends greatly on who is in charge. This will need to be further examined, and only then can reforms be made.

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