Unaccompanied children (UC) who have been migrating from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the United States for years, were largely unnoticed by the general population until this phenomenon captured our nation’s attention in the summer of 2014. That year, the number of unaccompanied children that showed up at the US – Mexico border reached approximately 68,000 – a 75% increase from the year before. Since then, the number of UC’s apprehended at the border has decreased, however, the flow of migration of these children – escaping targeted and generalized gang violence, domestic abuse, and economic disparity – is steady and not showing signs of stopping any time soon. Their presence in the U.S. sparked our curiosity about what it’s like to be an unaccompanied youth integrating into a local community.
From an empirical standpoint, little is known about what factors impact their successful integration. Additionally, very little research has been done on this topic from the perspective of youth. We believe their voice matters most, therefore we conducted a research analysis highlighting the youth’s perspective, along with their caregivers and case managers, to help gain a better understanding about what helps UCs adjust and integrate.
USCCB/MRS staff used both qualitative and quantitative research techniques to gather data. Former UC youth, caregivers, and case managers connected to FC and FR programs participated in interviews. Subsequently, surveys were developed to gather quantitative data in line with the emergent themes, and the data was analyzed for trends related to each theme. The interviews and surveys focused on topics related to community, activities, safety, adjustment, youth goals, legal services, aspects of caregiving, and the role of case managers.
In our research, youth reported repeatedly that their legal immigration status in the United States has a significant impact on their ability to integrate into communities. One of the most significant challenges a lack of legal status brings to the youth is the stigma and fear of deportation that impede on their daily lives. Simple activities like walking down the street to school can be clouded with the fear of deportation. Other challenges commonly expressed from youth, caregivers, and case managers include cost and difficulties in obtaining legal representation, the extended length of time it takes for their case to process through Immigration Courts, and the confusion of the process itself. One case manager commented on the impact of UC’s not having legal counsel: “If they don’t have the money it’s hard for them. Even though they may qualify [for a legal status] they won’t get it because they don’t have an attorney and they can’t afford it.” Unaccompanied children are faced with the reality that no matter their actual need for protection, remaining legally in the United States and finding protection is often contingent upon having an attorney. Consequently, when youth obtain a legal status, it is a significant factor in successfully integrating into the U.S.; “It’s definitely a sigh of relief. You may see a youth who was hunched over a little, and now they are standing straight because they know ‘I’m here, I’m legally here.’”
As the environment in which youth reside, access services, and interact with peers and adults, the community setting is an important context for the process of integration. As several reports have demonstrated, these youth are fleeing generalized violence and the threat of gangs. When reflecting back on her initial move, one youth shared: “At first, I thought, since it’s a big state, that it was going to be violent and full of gangs, but then I realized it has many good things.” The importance of being able to freely walk the streets or through their own choices to avoid dangerous situations was an important difference about life in their new communities. Basic needs, such as safety, accessible medical and mental health services, and the opportunity to find support among peers or their ethnic community were highlighted in interviews as a foundation for youth to transition from survival to success.
Everyone we interviewed spoke to the crucial role of the school setting in assisting or hindering a youth’s integration. One case worker stated it is the “key player” in integration due to the amount of time youth spend in school. This is the space in which they learn, not just academics, but social skills and cultural norms and create relationships with both peers and academic professionals. Case workers reported that schools that were accommodating to UC and their needs had a correlation on youth doing well in school. One notable way schools met the needs of UC youth was by initiating English as a Second Language (ESL) programs tailored to the needs to the youth. In instances when a youth finds a particular subject or area difficult, the case worker will tell them, “You took a 3,000 mile journey, this is easier than that!” They reported that this helps the youth put things into perspective. The educational setting also helps these youth because of the relationships they are able to create with peers and teachers. Caregivers also recognize the importance of youth attending school and the opportunities it brings. One sponsor said, “…I want her to continue studying. She only needs a little more to finish her schooling. In our country she wasn’t studying, but here she can do this for herself.”
Case managers also play a critical role in fostering successful integration of youth into communities. They are often the gateway to various needed services that meet the immediate needs of the youth and their families and act as advocates on behalf of the youth. While we went into this study focused on the role of the case manager with the youth, interviews exposed the importance of the role they play with the caregiver as well. Case managers that were culturally competent and accessible appeared to have the most impact. Care givers and youth noted how helpful they are as they provide of tools for empowerment and act as resource and cultural brokers. One caregiver noted about their case manager, “The most important thing that [a case worker] has done for my children is, well, everything. They recommended the doctors, counselors, attorneys. [The case worker] has been there with us.” The support the case manager provides to the UC and their family has a considerable impact on the lives of families and often guides youth to move towards successful integration.
Family and Relational Support
The centrality of relational and family support in the lives in unaccompanied children cannot likely be overstated. The role of competent caregivers, supportive adults, and positive peers are foundational to the development of all children and youth. The fact that these children have experienced separation from their parents for any period of their lives only underscores the importance of a safe and loving home environment in which they can process past trauma and begin the work of adjusting to a new country and way of life.
Two quotes from youth demonstrate the importance of home life from different perspectives. The first said, “In my opinion if there isn’t any peace in the home, people, including me, think ‘I don’t want to go home, I want to be somewhere else’ and you are constantly thinking this all day even while you’re in school, and that’s all you think about.” And another described, “I’ll talk to my foster mom and I’ll ask her ‘What do you think of this?’ She’ll say, ‘I think that is a good idea!’, or ‘I don’t think that’s a good way to look at it.’ […] Just knowing that there is someone supporting me, that I am not alone in all of this, that there is one place in this world where my opinion matters, my voice matters, and that I mean something to someone – that helps me a lot.”
Throughout all the interviews with case managers, caregivers, and program management, one common word was continuously used to describe unaccompanied youth: Resilient. While research on the resiliency of the forced migrant is not new, the focus of this study was to assess specifically which strategies unaccompanied youth are utilizing in order to cope with their new life in the U.S. They are enrolled in school and they are giving back to their community. In regards to the strengths that they possess, we found that youth are utilizing positive coping skills, have goals they would like to achieve, have gained self-awareness, and are vested in helping others, either in their home country or in their communities in the U.S. One interviewed youth stated, “My dream, when I was in El Salvador, was to hold a high school diploma in my hands. I was never able to accomplish it. So now that I am here, I’ve talked to my counselors and they told me that I could study and that the program was going to help me. Then I was like, ‘I want a career!’ This opportunity changed my dreams. I want to study, I want to finish high school, I want to go to college, and I want to have a career…I want to teach, I want to be a music teacher….It makes me really happy to know that there are people that support me and believe I can achieve it all, and I CAN achieve it all!”
The process of integrating into the U.S. is daunting and confusing; however, regardless of which program services unaccompanied youth, all deserve to have their needs heard and to have case workers that can be an advocate for them. As USCCB/MRS continues to offer programing to UCs and as UCs continue to be placed with sponsors or foster care providers in the United States, we hope this research can help inform our work with this population and become a springboard for further research.