These children are people. They are people with complex stories, with loved ones and communities, with traumas, with aspirations. We emphasize this because all of the language that follows is dehumanizing; the process of incarcerating them is inhuman. And so we must being by centering the human beings whose lives are deeply impacted by state violence. The US government labels them "Unaccompanied Alien Children." The government considers a child "unaccompanied" if they are apprehended at the border without their legal guardian. They are considered "unaccompanied" even if they are traveling with a blood relative, adult spouse (in the case of some teenage couples where one partner is 18+), hired coyote, or family friend. In other words, they are considered "unaccompanied" even if they are with an adult they are supposed to be with, if that adult is not technically their legal guardian. According to Congressional documents, 90% of “unaccompanied” children have family members already in the United States. They are not lost children wandering alone in the desert. Most are on a trajectory to reunify with family who have gone ahead. Instead of being reunited immediately, the US government conducts mandatory mass detention of these children and investigates their families.
STEP 1 – Law enforcement (ICE or CBP) labels a child as “unaccompanied” at the border/port of entry. Supposedly the child is to be held by law enforcement for no more than 72 hours, but this is not enforced. The huge influx facilities at the border, such as Tornillo in Texas and Homestead in Florida, are examples of this – children being held in law enforcement custody for long periods of time before being transferred to the UAC system.
STEP 2 – the child is transferred to the UAC system, which is not operated by law enforcement, but by other agencies in the federal government: the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a subdivision of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS contracts with private providers, such as Heartland Alliance in Chicago, to operate what it calls “permanent shelters.” At this point, the federal government takes full custody of the child, stripping the legal guardian of their custody rights for the duration of the child’s detention.
STEP 3 – the goal of detention in the UAC “permanent shelters” is to investigate the child and the family. This information is extracted in order to (1) place the child under deportation proceedings and build their immigration case (2) release the child to a government-approved "sponsor" while they await their immigration trial.
No human being is illegal and there is no good reason to jail kids. But detaining them benefits the State and the private companies/NGOs who profit from government contracts to hold them. Detaining these children provides the US government an opportunity to extract valuable information about them and their communities and weaponize this information in deportation machinery. The children are NOT detained because they have been found guilty of violating immigration law. They are detained to be investigated and then released to a government-approved sponsor while they await their trial to determine immigration status. All of the children are put under deportation proceedings (the default of immigration cases), but most of the children come from countries that qualify them to apply for asylum (such as El Salvador, Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc). But once again, these children are detained BEFORE their immigration status is determined - they are detained while the US government investigates them and their families.
Most of the children are teenagers. Some are younger. Some are babies with teenage parents. Some are teenagers who are currently pregnant.
In 2018, there was a population of children who were traveling with their legal guardians, but who were still separated from their families by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. These “separated” children were funneled into the pre-existing UAC detention system. The family separation policy garnered much media attention and liberal outrage and has since been rescinded, but the outrage did not extend to the pre-existing UAC system, which we also consider to be a mechanism of family separation.