‘It’s a legal right to seek asylum in the US’: Number of unaccompanied minors grows at border

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center says ‘removing Title 42 for children’ to enter U.S. is a step in the right direction, but immigration system as whole needs to be changed.
Biden Border
Posted at 6:20 AM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 07:31:48-04

MICHIGAN — The immigration crisis continues to grow at the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to the Pew Research Center, close to 100,000 migrants were detained at the border in February, which is the highest it’s been since May 2019.

“I think the most important thing to know is what’s going on at the border is a result of the poor policies that were in place in the prior administration,” said Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez, supervising attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. “I want to highlight that it’s nothing new. It’s a legal right to seek asylum in the United States.”

Ontiveros-Chavez is the supervising attorney for the Unaccompanied Children’s Program at MIRC, where they work with hundreds of children who’ve already crossed the border and were sent to Michigan.

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She said among the migrants crossing over, many of them are children. It's a slightly different scene from last year where many migrants were expelled under Title 42, which turned migrants away due to public health concerns. Former President Donald Trump re-established the 1944 act at the beginning of the pandemic, blocking thousands of migrants from entering the country.

“The fact that we were seeing less children a year ago, for example, was just that they were being turned away, or they were being held at the border or not being allowed in or being turned away in those Title 42 proceedings that Rebeca mentioned,” said fellow MIRC supervising attorney Ana Devereaux. “So, that was much more distressing to know that people were here seeking relief and not being allowed to have the opportunity to ask for it or get help.”

However, a few months ago, a district court judge blocked Title 42 from affecting children, which temporarily allowed for unaccompanied minors to enter into the country.

“As long as violence and instability exist in any other country, people are going to be making the trip, including families and children and taking that risk because the benefit outweighs that,” Ontiveros-Chavez said. “I know that removing Title 42 for children to allow them to come in and be processed through the Office of Refugee Resettlement is a good thing.”

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Ontiveros-Chavez said it’s "gut-wrenching" to know that many parents make the tough decisions to allow their children to enter unaccompanied and get processed alone.

Devereaux added that children get processed by Customs and Border Patrol or ICE within the first few days of arrival. That’s where they get designated as an unaccompanied minor after meeting the criteria, which means they're under the age of 18, not with a parent or legal guardian, and they have no immigration status. Then, they’re transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“Then an ORR will kind of just look across the country, check for an open bed and then send the child by plane to that location,” Devereaux said. “So, that’s kind of the first time children come to Michigan, and then they go through the process where they assess their potential sponsor. So, that’s a family member or a friend of the family that can receive them so that they can get released from government custody.”

If not, then they’re put into either short-term or long-term foster care, Devereaux said. Michigan has two programs that are ORR subcontracted: Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas. MIRC works with hundreds of clients in both facilities. Nevertheless, the attorneys said they believe the immigration system as a whole needs an overhaul.

“It’s a really great opportunity for this administration to reimagine the immigration system, both in the child detention context and adult detention as well,” Ontiveros-Chavez said.