Help Wanted: Seeking Support for Unaccompanied Children

Social Justice Policy Brief #146 | By: Steve Piazza | May 15, 2023
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Please note: This is the second part of a report on how child labor laws are failing to protect minors from work related abuses  (see USRENEW NEWS Social Justice Policy Brief # 146) and the implications that has for their education. This time the focus is mainly on unaccompanied migrant children.


Policy Summary

Federal government educational support for qualified migrant children comes from the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education (OME). The program provides grant funding under Title 1, Part C to all states, which in turn decide how the money will be used. Typically, state MEPs will offer academic, counseling, and other services to support all migrant children PreK-12 regardless of status.  

OME programs also include incentives for State Educational Agencies (SEAs) to collaborate with MEPs in other states since migrant families tend to move to where the work is.

An immigrant child has legal status if he or she is accompanied by a parent or guardian who was granted official entry of some sort  (even or if the child himself/herself were granted some sort of official entry. Otherwise they are considered undocumented.

Although undocumented migrant children in the United States are allowed access to PreK-12 education, unlike other migrant children they lack basic protections of federal and state social programs safeguarding their overall well being, not to mention assurances that they end up in school at all. Undocumented children are either children who are unaccompanied by a parent or a guardian or have a parent/guardian who themselves are either undocumented or whose environment is not deemed appropriate for children.


Policy Analysis


Unaccompanied minors are detained and processed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which has the responsibility to secure the release of children to sponsors it has verified, whether family members or not. 

According to HHS, the number of children ORR serves has grown from 8,000 prior to 2012 to 128,904 in 2022. The Labor Department puts that last number at 146,925, while already having processed 46,825 this year. 

Yet, too many unaccompanied youths are released to individuals who have not been adequately verified, and many of them end up being forced to work jobs involving long hours and hazardous conditions. School for them is not an option. Even if unaccompanied children are in good homes, economic situations there might require them to help out financially. That’s not quite trafficking, but it can have the same effect on a child’s education.

Government attempts to address the issue have fallen short. Recently, a report by Hannah Dreier of the New York Times on migrant child labor abuses of unaccompanied youth has called out the Biden Administration for failing to properly heed warnings that abuses have been taking place. 

According to Dreier, the Biden Administration has since committed itself to the issue, but only after the administration refused to comment on why they ignored notifications and blame volleyed back and forth between agencies. Dreier went on to tell PBS, “no single agency is really responsible for these children after they’re released to sponsors.”  

ORR Director Robin Dunn Marcos told NPR they lack the personnel and resources to monitor what happens to the migrant children once they’re released. It’s been proposed that HHS be provided with $7.3 billion to strengthen the migrant support infrastructure in 2024, but that’s a long time away.  

Existing programs, like The Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, just don’t go far enough. Authorized under Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, that program may provide relief to some unaccompanied children as long as they’re identified and not lost in the trafficking landscape. 

Directly addressing the school issue itself is also an enormous task. By law, all children regardless of status must be allowed to attend school. Education Week reports that migrant services are available for 302,000 eligible students, including 28,000 out-of-school youths.

Even for those in school, the staggering academic results show that progress is not where it should be. The Migrant State Agency Program’s 2016 performance report for migrant students grades 3 to 8 showed less than 30%  proficiency standards in reading and language arts. It was even lower for math. Some of this has to do with the transitory behavior of migrant families, ongoing language barriers, and agricultural labor exceptions in existing laws, but it is an indication that much improvement is needed.

Test scores are only part of the indication that they are being underserved. Long term effects are worth considering since about 55% of migrant workers claim to have received no more than a ninth grade education. More than half of those never even made it to the seventh grade.

Meanwhile, child labor abuses remain a reality. That’s not surprising in an economy where opportunists coveting gainful bottom lines are incentivized on the backs of children. Such practices run counter to the systemic change necessary for societal norms to reflect what’s best for them.  

Prioritizing unaccompanied migrant children’s welfare over production costs related to auto parts factories, meat packing plants, restaurants, and construction sites may seem herculean. But devoting protective resources now is a powerful step towards eliminating abuses not only for them, but for all children. It also teaches them the humanity they’ll need to influence how the economy, not to mention migrant programs, ought to run in the future.


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