10 Things Educators Need to Know about Unaccompanied Minors
Updated: Aug 27
At this point, you’ve probably seen the news. Nearly 19,000 children, mostly from Central America, were apprehended at the border in March 2021 alone. While this phenomenon of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border isn’t new, the number of arrivals is definitely greater than usual. For instance, in FY2019 (pre-COVID), just under 70,000 minors crossed the border and were in the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) care over the course of the entire year (also a record at the time).
Why are so many minors coming? While some of the “push factors” may be increasing (i.e. violence, poverty, climate change, privatization of natural resources, etc.) and there are always seasonal migration patterns, one could argue that the biggest factor is changes to Title 42. This is a rule that was enacted on March 20, 2020 that allowed the government to immediately expel those arriving at the border because of the risks related to COVID-19. This included asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors. Ultimately, this resulted in 15,867 unaccompanied minors being turned away at the border in 2020.
The Biden Administration is still utilizing Title 42 and expelling families and single adults, but they are NOT turning away unaccompanied minors. Therefore, we have a backlog. We have a year’s worth of unaccompanied minors who are all trying to come at the same time. For more information on the “whys” and the complexity of this situation, check out this article from Time Magazine.
Now let’s look at what’s most important for educators to know, so that we can be proactive and prepared for when many of these children end up in our classrooms this Fall.
The time to prepare is now. Unaccompanied minors are first apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and placed in the “jail like facilities” that we often see on the news. By law, they are supposed to be released to ORR shelters within 72 hours, but this has been taking longer due to a shortage of beds and other factors. Once in an ORR shelter, each child is usually there for 100+ days (average was 102 days in FY2020), while a suitable family member or other sponsor is located and screened. This means it’s likely many of these children will be released and ready to enroll in school over the summer or early Fall.
You can look up data on unaccompanied minors released to your area. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement keeps detailed data on their website that anyone can view. It’s broken down by state and county. If you want to look at previous federal fiscal years, you can see that data here. Use this data to advocate for programming and services for these students!
Many of these students have limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). This means it’s time to “beef up” your SLIFE programming and/or start to advocate for this type of thing if you don’t have it. There is tons of great professional development out there on working with SLIFE! For example, English Learner Portal has a new SLIFE course starting on June 21. In addition, Seidlitz Education and Multilinguals Forward held a virtual SLIFE conference in 2020 and all of the presentation recordings are free!
Youth from Guatemala make up the largest percentage of unaccompanied minors and many of these youth have indigenous/Maya roots. This means many unaccompanied youth are Native Americans with their own cultures and languages. For example, common languages spoken are Mam, K’iche’, and Q'anjob'al. Many Maya youth do not speak Spanish (or they speak Spanish as a second language) and these students are not Hispanic / Latino. This is crucial when you think through your registration process, home language surveys, bilingual programming, interpretation and translation services for caregivers, and so on.
Learn about trauma-informed practices for immigrant and refugee students, including unaccompanied minors. Sometimes districts have extensive trauma-informed PD and initiatives, but fail to recognize the unique needs and strengths of immigrants, refugees, and English Learners. Our favorite resource on this topic is from Dr. Heidi Ellis and her team at Boston Children’s Hospital: the Refugee and Immigrant Core Stressors Toolkit Refugee and Immigrant Core Stressors Toolkit. This model recognizes that what immigrant and refugee students are going through is NOT just about trauma experienced in the home country. It’s also about trauma and violence in one’s community in the U.S. as well as the difficulties with acculturation and learning English, poverty and basic needs, legal immigration issues, isolation, and discrimination. They have done a significant amount of work implementing school-based, multi-tiered mental health programming in various school districts. They utilize cultural brokers in their programming and recognize that family engagement, assistance with basic needs, and acculturation support are crucial parts of mental health treatment. You can check out their book here.
Teachers (not just school counselors, etc.) play an incredibly important role in the mental health and social-emotional support of unaccompanied minors. Research shows that “school connectedness” and “peer support” are two of the biggest protective factors for immigrant and refugee youth that help mitigate the risk factors and core stressors mentioned above. In other words, anything you do to help your newcomer students feel like they belong and have friends is key! So start up the lunch bunches and clubs, create a peer mentoring initiative for newcomers, make sure you respond to bullying, and so on!
Unaccompanied minors receive six hours of instruction per day while in ORR care. (Note: not while they are first in DHS/CBP custody.) There is very little written about what this education actually looks like and the education varies greatly between ORR facilities, but a couple of articles are here and here. We also include a webinar we did with teachers at an ORR shelter in Chicago in our online course on supporting unaccompanied immigrant youth that includes a lot of great information.
For a number of reasons that are too long for this blog post, the U.S. government does not consider most of these youth to be refugees. All of the youth in ORR custody are in deportation proceedings. They are released to a family member or other sponsor while their immigration case works through the system. The government also does NOT provide these youth with an attorney, so they need to find an attorney or they’ll go to immigration court on their own. Some of this youth may be able to eventually get asylum or another status which will allow them to permanently stay in the U.S., but this will require a lawyer. It is recommended that school counselors, social workers, and/or parent liaisons keep a list of organizations that provide low-cost or pro bono attorneys for immigrants. A good place to start is here.
ORR’s definition of unaccompanied minor is NOT the same as McKinney Vento’s but there is overlap in the two populations. By law, an “Unaccompanied Alien Child” is someone who a) has no lawful immigration status in the United States; b) has not attained 18 years of age; and c) has no parent or legal guardian in the United States or no parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide for their care and physical custody. Of course this is a different definition than what is used in K-12 education, particularly with the McKinney Vento Act. The youth we’re talking about WERE unaccompanied (at least not with a parent or legal guardian) when they crossed the border, but now they are living with a family member or other person who agreed to be their sponsor (unless that placement fell apart). Depending on who they were released to and who accompanies the student to register for school, your homeless liaisons may or may not become involved.
These students are NOT just the EL teacher’s responsibility. Like all English Learners, these students are everyone’s students. They should have the opportunity to build relationships with and learn from general education teachers, administrators, school counselors, social workers, and more. Furthermore, their caregivers (whoever ORR released them to) should have an opportunity to connect with parent liaisons or other family engagement staff for support.
If you would like more information about unaccompanied minors, please join me for a FREE webinar we’re doing in partnership with English Learner Portal on May 26 at 7 pm ET. It will be 30 minutes with 15 minutes for Q and A.
If you’re ready for more detailed information on how to support this population, sign up for the 5 hour self-paced online course that I (Laura Gardner) teach through our partnership with English Learner Portal and Brandman University. The next section starts September 20, 2021! Or if you prefer, we can facilitate a live virtual workshop for your group – just email email@example.com to discuss.
2 Fact Sheets from the U.S. Department of Education on Educational Services for Immigrant Children and Those Recently Arrived to the United States
Colorín Colorado's article on unaccompanied children in schools