By Rebekah Wolf, Immigration Impact
Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have confirmed that 34 unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan currently in the United States were among the approximately 123,000 Afghan nationals evacuated from Afghanistan last month. With more Afghan children expected to arrive in the United States, their future and what awaits them is unclear.
An “unaccompanied minor” for immigration purposes is legally defined as a person who is under 18 years of age, does not have legal status in the United States, and does not have a parent or legal guardian in the United States.
Since 2003, when a child comes to the United States as an unaccompanied minor, they are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a sub-division within HHS. Children then can be reunited with an adult sponsor—usually a family member—if one can be identified in the United States or placed in an ORR facility until a sponsor can be identified, a long-term foster care arrangement can be made, or the child turns 18.
Of the 34 unaccompanied minors reported to have been evacuated from Afghanistan last month, four were placed with family members upon arrival, and the other 30 were placed in ORR facilities. There, these children face a multitude of issues.
As of August 30, 2021, ORR had 14,840 children in its custody—the vast majority from Central America and Mexico. They are held in a combination of permanent facilities run by private licensed contractors, and “temporary” facilities, which can include emergency intake sites. Recently, a whistleblower complaint was filed against one of the largest emergency intake sites at Ft. Bliss in Texas, citing horrible conditions.
The unaccompanied children from Afghanistan have been given permission to enter the United States but have no legal immigration status. They have entered on Humanitarian Parole, a process of granting a person temporary permission to enter the United States on a case-by-case basis for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or “significant public benefit”. This may include obtaining medical care to reuniting with family members to even request protection from individual harm. Many of them go on to apply for permanent humanitarian protection in the United States, including asylum or a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status visa.
Permission to stay in the United States for people who receive humanitarian parole is not assured—they still have to apply for protection and can be deported if they are not successful in their applications. Some may stay in the ORR facilities throughout their immigration proceedings.
It is not clear what type of facility is housing the children from Afghanistan, or how many more will arrive in the coming days. What we do know is that these children have had a traumatic, harrowing experience leaving their home country. The government should do everything it can to place these children with suitable sponsors who can meet their emotional, physical, and cultural needs.