Are thousands of immigrant children missing in the United States?
Experts urge greater oversight amid a rise in unaccompanied children at the border
As record numbers of migrants continue to enter the United States from Mexico, border authorities are also seeing higher numbers of minors traveling without a legal guardian. In response to the surge in unaccompanied youth, the Biden administration is releasing children to sponsors in an average of 28 days. Prospective hosts can fill out their paperwork remotely and case workers rarely visit their home. Officials are required to follow up with the child via a phone call one month later.
Between 2021 and 2022, 85,000 unaccompanied children—one third of children released to sponsors in the United States—didn’t pick up the phone. The government is unable to account for their whereabouts or welfare. Following a congressional hearing last April, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., demanded the FBI locate the “missing children.”
While some immigration and child welfare experts downplay concerns that thousands of children are missing, they agree the Biden administration isn’t doing enough to follow up with these vulnerable children and provide them with long-term support as they make their way through the immigration system. And many argue a proposed government regulation will strip these children of even more protections.
About 365,000 immigrant children have crossed the southern border alone in the past three years—more than half of the nearly 750,000 unaccompanied children placed with sponsors since 2012. The record numbers of unaccompanied minors reflect the broader border surge. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers took more than 6 million immigrants of all ages into custody between 2021 and 2023. Officials released approximately 2.3 million of them into the United States during that period. This number does not include the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children transferred to federal shelters.
While 72 percent of minors traveling alone are over 14, some are under 5 years old. Jennifer Podkul is the vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, which provides lawyers to unaccompanied children. She said older children sometimes leave their countries to avoid being pressured by gangs, which often retaliate against families if young people refuse to join them. Some leave in hopes of finding a job in the United States. Others arrive alone after losing their parents along the way. In some cases, parents or relatives send their children ahead in hopes they have a better chance of getting across the border.
Large numbers of unaccompanied minors began arriving alone in 2012 from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. “Gang violence was getting out of hand,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, which provides lawyers to unaccompanied children. “And those three countries and gangs were specifically targeting young people.”
The numbers exploded in 2021 when President Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied minors from Title 42, the COVID-19 no-entry policy that allowed immigration authorities to immediately return illegal immigrants to Mexico. Many of the children were already waiting across the border. “It was kind of like releasing a pressure valve,” said Podkul. For example, in August, border officials referred an average of 431 children per day to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Biden administration was forced to reopen an emergency site to house children as traditional shelters reached capacity.
U.S. law requires border agents to transfer unaccompanied children who are not from Mexico to HHS custody, usually within 72 hours. A 1997 legal agreement between the U.S. government and immigration advocacy groups, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, set the standard for the detention, release, and treatment of children in government custody.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said U.S. immigration laws incentivize families to entrust their children to smugglers for the risky journey. The Congressional Research Service estimated in 2014 that 75 to 80 percent of unaccompanied minor immigrants are smuggled into the United States. Many of these youth are at high risk of exploitation by the smugglers.
Once children arrive, CBP transfers them to federal shelters funded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement until they are reunited with a sponsor. Vaughan said this process is rushed. HHS “has had the goal of releasing the kids as quickly as possible, with the emphasis on quickly, not safely,” she told me.
Until 2017, HHS released the majority of immigrant children to their parents. But now, about two-thirds of them end up with non-parent sponsors. The number of children placed with distant relatives increased between 2021 and 2022, according to an HHS audit from June 2023. The report also found HHS released 344 children to sponsors who were already hosting three or more unaccompanied minors, contributing to advocates’ concerns that some sponsors are allowing children to be exploited for labor.
Last year, several The New York Times reports documented instances of exploitive labor: young adolescents tiling roofs without proper safety equipment or working all night in meat packing plants where they are often harmed in machinery accidents. From interviews with over 60 caseworkers, the Times estimated two-thirds of children who leave HHS care work full-time jobs.
Lisa Treviño Cummins is the president of Urban Strategies, an organization that receives federal funding to manage three small shelters for unaccompanied minor migrants in Florida and Texas. The children are hosted in repurposed facilities such as church gyms and Sunday school rooms. Cummins told me that, as far as she knows, none of the children passing through her shelters have ended up in exploitative labor. Still, the lack of government follow-up concerns her. “We’re always concerned for these kids because we know, [even] in the best scenario, they’re going into tough situations,” she said.
But the claim that 85,000 children are missing because their sponsor didn’t pick up the phone may be overblown, said Podkul with Kids in Need of Defense. “That doesn’t mean that they’re lost, or they’re not with the sponsor anymore,” she said. “This could still be a child who’s going to immigration court regularly.” She argued there must be a delicate balance between holding children in congregate care facilities at the risk of inflicting more trauma and spending more time vetting sponsors. But she agrees the current follow-up procedures are insufficient.
Last September, HHS proposed a regulation to strengthen services and protections for unaccompanied children. The rule would codify aspects of the Flores settlement. Jonathan Beier, senior researcher at the immigrant legal defense organization Acacia Center for Justice, praised some provisions but is concerned other measures would only worsen the problem. If HHS enshrines the new regulation, it will no longer receive court-appointed oversight from third-party organizations. “So we need to make sure that the Office of Refugee Resettlement is building in additional means for transparency, whether that’s through public data reporting or other means of oversight,” he said.
Beier also worries about a piece of the regulation that exempts shelters from obtaining a state operating license as long as they have a federal license. “It’s really important not to have one agency or one office responsible for everything, and to have external third parties doing oversight,” he said.
The focus should be on increasing post-release services, Beier argued. He is involved with a pilot program in California, one of the three states that receive the highest numbers of unaccompanied minors. The program assigns a lawyer and a social worker through the California Department of Social Services’ Office of Immigrant Youth. “And those two individuals, the lawyer and the social service provider, work hand in hand with the child to make sure that they’re receiving the holistic support they need,” he said. It doesn’t require children to access services through a school, which allows social workers to reach more children.
Providing children with legal representation increases the likelihood that they will show up in court and win their cases. It’s a process that takes 4 to 6 years due to backlogs in the system, Beier said. The most recent available data from 2015 showed about half of children do not show up to their immigration hearings.
Cummins with Urban Strategies told me she put together a proposal seven years ago to increase follow-up with children released to sponsors and that the federal government funded the initiative for the first time last year. Cummins and her staff plan to start serving their first child in the next few weeks. “It actually gives you boots on the ground to go in and connect with those kids,” she said.
Cummins said the Church has an opportunity to get involved in post-release services, whether that’s participating in a mentorship program or providing back to school supplies. “Our model is always to work with churches,” she said. “It’s the opportunity for the church to step up.”
But building relationships with children starts when they are still in her organization’s HSS funded shelters, Cummins said. Staff do crafts and work on projects like gardening with the children in smaller groups. That month in a shelter can change a child’s life, she tells her employees: “Let’s make it the best 30 to 40 days of their life.”