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Children in Custody: A Study of Detained Migrant Children in the United States
UCLA Law Review (2021)
  • Emily Ryo
  • Reed Humphrey
Every year, tens of thousands of migrant children are taken into custody by U.S. immigration
authorities. Many of these children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives when they arrive at
the U.S. border. Others who are accompanied by parents or relatives are rendered unaccompanied
when U.S. immigration authorities separate them upon apprehension. Together, these minors
are called unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and transferred to the custody of the Office
of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), unless and until their immigration cases are resolved or until
the children can be placed with a sponsor in the United States pending the adjudication of their
immigration cases. In fiscal year 2019, the ORR held the highest number of UACs in its UAC
program history.

This study presents the first systematic empirical investigation of children in ORR custody using
original administrative records pertaining to migrant children who were in ORR custody between
November 2017 and August 2019. Our analysis reveals an increasing number and proportion of
children in U.S. custody who are extremely vulnerable: girls, young children of tender age (260
of whom are U.S. citizens), and children emigrating from countries with high rates of crime and
violence. This trend suggests that insofar as punitive immigration enforcement policies may have
deterred some children from undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States, those who
continue to arrive at the U.S. border are likely children who are most in need of special care and
legal protection.

Yet our analysis raises serious questions about the system’s capacity to afford such care and
protection. We find that most migrant children held in custody were concentrated in a small
number of states, which are different from the states in which their sponsors reside. Only about
11 percent of children reunified were discharged from facilities located in the same state as their
sponsors’ states of residence. In addition, most migrant children were in facilities that are extremely
large—for example, shelters with capacities of 100 or more children. We also find deep inequalities
in the system that suggest that custodial experiences and outcomes of UACs in ORR custody are
closely tied to the particular facility and type of program in which a child happens to be placed.
Among other findings, our analysis shows that the median time to reunification varies widely
between facilities. For example, one ORR shelter’s median time to reunification was nearly eight
times as high as that of another ORR shelter. We discuss the policy implications of these findings
and consider critical issues that require further investigation—issues that are central to evaluating
how, whether, and to what extent the U.S. government is fulfilling its moral and legal obligation to
protect migrant children inside our borders.
  • immigration enforcement,
  • immigration detention,
  • migrant children,
  • unaccompanied minors
Publication Date
Citation Information
Emily Ryo and Reed Humphrey. "Children in Custody: A Study of Detained Migrant Children in the United States" UCLA Law Review Vol. 68 (2021) p. 136
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