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What Kind of Welcome? Addressing the Integration Needs of Central American Children and Adolescents in US Local Communities

Elzbieta M. Gozdziak


Child Migrants Make Headlines

Unaccompanied child migrants from Central America and Mexico arriving at the US southern border became national news in the summer of 2014. A multitude of front-page stories about the influx of unaccompanied children and youth traveling to the United States to seek refuge from horrific violence—rape, gang recruitment, and murder—in Honduras,

Funding for this project was provided by the J. M. Kaplan Fund. A longer version of these findings was published as a report. This chapter also draws on a research project on undocumented children and children living in mixed status families, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

E.M. Gozdziak (*)

Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA

© The Author(s) 2016

M.O. Ensor, E.M. Gozdziak (eds.), Children and Forced Migration, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40691-6_3

Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico followed (Constable 2014; Strain 2014; Blume 2014; Terrio 2014; Frelick 2014). Advocacy groups and UN agencies produced reports urging international protection for the children on the move (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Kids in Need of Defense [KIND] 2014; UNHCR 2014). Migration policy advisors and congressional researchers also chimed in (Ryan 2014; Seghetti et al. 2014).

Journalists wrote about anti-immigrant sentiments reaching fever pitch over the arrival of these youngsters (Deitch 2014). CNN reported that in some places (e.g., Murrieta, California, and Oracle, Arizona) the message was clear: immigrant children fleeing Central America are unwelcome in “Small Town USA” (Abdullah 2014). Child advocates countered these attitudes with calls for protecting the children and ensuring due process in immigration proceedings. The attention overwhelmingly centered on the push factors driving the arrival of unaccompanied children and youth into the USA and their treatment while in government custody. The long-term durable solutions discussed by advocates focused almost exclusively on immigration relief. There were calls to consider the young people refugees or to provide them immediately with temporary protection that would accord them a right to stay in the United States, go to school, and work.

Fewer advocates focused on how the young migrants fared once released from detention centers to their family and community. Mark Greenberg, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), testified that in FY 2014, “approximately 95 percent of children released [from the Department of Health and Human Services custody] were released to a parent, relative, or non-relative sponsor” (Greenberg 2014). Most unaccompanied children spend, on average, 35 days in HHS custody (US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Administration for Children and Families n.d.), but they wait 578 days for a court date to appear in front of an immigration judge (Taxin 2014; US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service n.d.).

It is obvious that 578 days is a long time—a little over a year and a half. It is difficult to predict how many of the young migrants will be allowed to remain in the country after their immigration hearing. Nevertheless, whether they will be allowed to stay or eventually will be deported, they are here now. What will happen to them in the intervening months and years? How will they fare in the families and communities to whom they have been released? Will their relatives embrace them? How will anti-immigrant sentiments affect their daily lives? Will they be integrated into US schools or even go to school? Who will support them? These are some of the issues that this chapter addresses in the context of short- and longer-term durable solutions.

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