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date: 04 December 2022

Unaccompanied Refugee Minors and Migrant Youth: Policy and Practices in the United Statesfree

Unaccompanied Refugee Minors and Migrant Youth: Policy and Practices in the United Statesfree

  • Robert G. Hasson III, Robert G. Hasson IIIBoston College
  • Jodi Berger CardosoJodi Berger CardosoUniversity of Houston
  •  and Thomas M. CreaThomas M. CreaBoston College


Children and adolescents fleeing war, hardship, or natural disasters sometimes migrate to the United States without a parent or caregiver present. These children, classified by the U.S. Government as unaccompanied alien children (UAC), present unique needs based on previous exposure to trauma, including family separation. UAC who are not able to be reunited with family members are typically placed in the federally sponsored Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care program. However, a majority of unaccompanied migrant youth are not served by the URM foster care program. An overview of the defining characteristics of unaccompanied refugee minors and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) is given along with the history of legislation and policies related to URM and UMY, the pathways in the U.S. immigration system URM and UMY encounter upon their arrival, mental health, legal, and education implications, and challenges with family reunification. Implications for the social work field are presented.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • International and Global Issues
  • Social Justice and Human Rights


In the early 21st century, there has been a swell in the number of individuals forcibly displaced from their homes because of war, natural disaster, and political turmoil. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that in 2016 there were 65.6 million people around the world who experienced forced migration, including 22.5 million classified as refugees. Approximately one half of all refugees in 2016 were under age 18 (UNHCR, 2017). Circumstances sometimes result in children being separated from their caregivers in the midst of humanitarian crises, and some unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States (sometimes referred to as unaccompanied alien children [UAC]) eventually are placed in the federally sponsored Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care program.1 This article provides an overview of the defining features of URM and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) in federal foster care, the history of URM and UMY in the United States, factors that contribute to the vulnerability of these two distinct populations, and existing policies and practices that serve these populations. Implications for how the social work profession can inform policies and practices that serve unaccompanied children—both URM and UMY—are discussed.

Defining Characteristics of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors and Unaccompanied Migrant Youth in Federal Foster Care

Unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) are defined as “refugee children in the United States under the age of 18, without a parent or close relative who is willing or able to care for them” (Haddal, 2008, p. 4). URM are children living in settings outside the United States without a parent or caregiver and are identified by the U.S. Department of State for resettlement in the United States. Unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) are a separate yet similar group of children who have “no lawful immigration status in the United States; (have) not attained 18 years of age, and with respect to whom: (1) there (are) no parent(s) or legal guardian(s) in the United States; or (2) no parent(s) or legal guardian(s) in the United States (are) available to provide care and physical custody” (Office of Refugee Resettlement [ORR], 2012, para. 2). This article focuses on UMY who are placed in federal foster care. URM are resettled under the auspices of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a federal agency that provides an array of services for URM and qualifying UMY until they turn 18 years old or until they are reunited with family members living in the United States (Haddal, 2008). A defining characteristic that distinguishes URM from UMY is URM have refugee status in the United States, allowing for relief from deportation, while UMY do not have protections from deportation that accompany refugee status and typically await court proceedings for either affirmative or defensive asylum claims (Haddal, 2008).

Since 1980, ORR has resettled approximately 13,000 URM in the United States (ORR, 2015). Although the URM program was originally established to resettle unaccompanied children who originated outside the United States, the features of the URM program have adapted to serve children outside the legal designation of refugee status, including unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) currently living in the United States. For example, criteria for unaccompanied youth to be served by the URM program include being under age 18 and being classified as (1) a refugee, (2) an entrant, (3) an asylee, (4) a victim of trafficking, (5) a certain minor holding a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or (6) a U visa holder (Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, 2015). Between 2012 and 2016, ORR has experienced a dramatic increase in referrals for ORR services, rising from 13,625 referrals in 2012 to 40,810 referrals in 2017. The majority of youth in this time frame originated from Honduras (23%), Guatemala (45%), and El Salvador (27%), with less than 3% migrating from Mexico and 3% migrating from all other countries (ORR, 2018). These data signify how the characteristics of unaccompanied youth arriving to the United States have changed from the resettlement of URM in countries outside the United States to the arrival of UMY from Mexico and Central America seeking asylum at the U.S. border.

In 2015, the most recent year data are available on URM and UMY arrivals to the United States, 1,804 youth were served by the URM program (Administration for Children and Families [ACF], 2017). The majority of youth were refugees (n = 1,018), and other categories of eligibility included asylum seekers (n = 24), Cuban and Haitian entrants (n = 26), victims of trafficking (n = 118), and those having Special Juvenile Immigrant Status (n = 618) (ACF, 2017).2 Unaccompanied refugee minors resettled in the United States in 2015 were mostly settled in Michigan (343), California (270), and Massachusetts (199) (ACF, 2017).

Notably, there is a much larger population of unaccompanied minor youth in the United States that are not part of the URM program. In FY 2017, ORR served 40,810 migrant youth, a decline from 59,170 unaccompanied migrant youth in FY 2016 (ORR, 2018). A key distinguishing feature of placements for unaccompanied youth, compared to native-born US youth, is the nature of foster care placements. Foster care placements for unaccompanied youth are not under the direction of state or county child welfare systems. Rather, the URM program manages foster care placements for unaccompanied youth with collaboration from partner agencies, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which provide technical support for foster care providers (ORR, 2015). After youth are initially placed in an ORR shelter, ORR personnel work to reunify unaccompanied youth with a parent, caregiver, or sponsor as soon as safely possible. In FY 2016, approximately 91% of unaccompanied youth were released to a sponsor related to the child (e.g., biological relative, step parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, or nephews), and 55% were released to a parent (ACF, 2017). The initial placements for unaccompanied youth in FY 2016 included shelter, foster care, secure and staff secure placements, and therapeutic placements for unaccompanied youth with significant health or mental health needs. In FY 2016, the most common initial placement was shelter (n = 51,435), followed by foster care (n = 7,329), secure and staff secure (n = 330) and therapeutic placements (n = 76) (ACF, 2017). Importantly, some unaccompanied youth who may qualify for relief from deportation are provided long-term foster care services, suggesting there is likely crossover between programs for unaccompanied youth more generally in the URM program. However, it is unclear exactly how many unaccompanied youth are initially placed in federally sponsored programs prior to transitioning to the URM program (ACF, 2017).

In addition to the defining characteristics of URM and UMY, understanding the history of URM policies and legislation in the United States helps contextualize the contemporary characteristics of unaccompanied children in the United States and how existing policies promote and impede their health and integration in U.S. society.

Legislation and Policy History

Policies focused on supporting Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) in the United States originated after World War II. These early policies were often reactionary and disorganized, not resembling official legislation. First among these policies was the U.S. Attorney General’s Order on July 13, 1940 that supported the evacuation of unaccompanied children in war-affected Europe, specifically the United Kingdom. In 1945, the President’s Directive Program was established that created a partnership between the U.S. government and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. This policy eventually led to the resettlement of 1,300 unaccompanied children from Germany and Eastern Europe (Forbes & Fagen, 1984). Established in 1947, the Displaced Persons Program supported the resettlement of 3,000 unaccompanied children facilitated by the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The Displaced Persons Program subsequently led to the creation of state commissions to support unaccompanied children in 34 U.S. states (Forbes & Fagen, 1984).

At the time, there did not exist a legal definition of “refugee” in the United States. However, in the wake of World War II, the United Nations organized the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to establish an international protocol for how nations around the world can support individuals exposed to forced migration. The 1951 Convention defined a refugee as “someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; Is outside his/her country of origin; and Is unable or unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there for fear of persecution” (Jastram & Achiron, 2001, p. 9). Being a party to the 1951 Convention, the United States ascribed to the refugee definition outlined by UNHCR, foreshadowing more formalized US policies to support URM in the future.

The first of these was the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. This legislation was a departure from previous quota-based refugee policies and allowed for 4,000 URM under age 10 to be resettled in the United States (Forbes & Fagen, 1984). The largest URM program in the United States to date occurred in the 1960s and was an effort to resettle URM from Cuba. Between 1960 and 1962, over 8,000 URM entered the United States from Cuba and were initially placed in group-care settings until the U.S. government facilitated reunification in 1965 (Forbes & Fagen, 1984). This legislation occurred in the midst of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.

As the United States involvement in the Vietnam War intensified, so did the humanitarian crisis due to prolonged war and resulted in increased numbers of individuals forcibly displaced from their homes. In 1975, the United States facilitated Operation Babylift, which coordinated the entry of 2,547 URM from Vietnam and was operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID). Later, a Vietnamese nurse working at a refugee reception center in San Francisco filed a lawsuit that claimed many of the URM previously believed to have been orphaned had, in fact, parents in Vietnam seeking reunification. These claims were found to be unsubstantiated (Forbes & Fagen, 1984). The ongoing war in Southeast Asia brought with it subsequent refugee programs to respond to humanitarian crises, including the Indochinese Refugee Program in 1975 and 1979 (Forbes & Fagen, 1984). These policies responded to events involving unaccompanied youth and led to proactive development of legislation by the US government to formalize policies for URM in the United States.

The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 was the first established policy that outlined specific supports for URM entering the United States. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 was also the most dramatic policy advancement since 1952 and aligned the United States with the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and later the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service [LIRS], 2015). Important pieces of the US Refugee Act of 1980 include a formal asylum process for individuals arriving to U.S. borders and updating language that includes refugees beyond communist-controlled countries or the Middle East (LIRS, 2015).

The 1980 Refugee Act also included specific provisions for URM. Forbes and Fagen (1984) explain the provisions in the Act, which include establishing federal reimbursement for costs associated with caring for URM until they turn 18 years old, placing legal responsibility of URM in transit to the United States or until they are placed in the United States with ORR, and ensuring that URM be placed as soon as possible after their arrival. The 1980 Refugee Act also established guidelines for collecting data on URM, including “the names and last known residences of their parents, if living, at the time of arrival; and the children's location, status and progress” (Forbes & Fagen, 1984, p. 55). The 1980 Refugee Act established policies that ensured states would be reimbursed by the federal government for costs associated with caring for URM, including foster care, and also provided ORR with the authority to establish contracts with private organizations to serve URM. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 would serve as the main piece of legislation serving URM until the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement.

The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement was a court-enforced agreement that resulted from a lawsuit brought against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The lawsuit focused on issues related to due process for URM in the United States. The most notable outcome from the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement was the alignment of immigration practices with child welfare practices. Specifically, the agreement stipulated that unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) and URM be placed in the least restrictive environments upon their arrival. In addition, the agreement specified that “while children are in federal custody, government funded programs for unaccompanied youth are required to provide services such as food and shelter, health and mental health care, basic education, recreation, access to religious services, case management, and family reunification services” (LIRS, 2015, p. 11). Although not federal legislation, the Flores Settlement Agreement was a crucial policy shift, resulting from legal action that aligned immigration policies with child welfare best practices.

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the U.S. Congress passed the Homeland Security Act in 2002. This legislation transferred the care of UMY and URM in the United States from the INS to the newly created Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (LIRS, 2015). This transition included a shift from an agency focused on preserving and protecting borders to an agency focused on preserving the health and welfare of children. This important shift “represents a tangible recognition of the US government’s responsibility to treat unaccompanied minors as children first and foremost” (LIRS, 2015, p. 12). Policies focused on UMY and URM changed again with the passing of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). TVPRA recognized the vulnerability of unaccompanied youth and their risk of human trafficking. The legislation allowed for UMY who arrive to the United States to be interviewed by specially trained U.S. officials instead of being processed in more formal immigration settings. TVPRA further aligned the immigration procedures for UMY with child welfare best practices to establish protections from human trafficking (LIRS, 2015). In addition, TVPRA expanded UMY access to legal counsel; however, barriers to legal representation still exist (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies & Kids in Need of Defense, 2014). Along with a broad historical review of policies and legislation to serve unaccompanied children in the United States, a review of literature focused on the different pathways of migration for URM and UMY and differences in immigration policies for both groups allows for close examination of distinct features of vulnerability for URM and UMY when they arrive.

Recent changes to federal immigration policy have further marginalized UMY, and pose unique threats to health and wellbeing. On September 6, 2018, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Department proposed changes to the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement that would change the licensing requirements for facilities that house UMY. Currently, facilities used to house UMY receiving licensing from state agencies. The proposed rule changes would require that facilities be licensed by federal agencies, and not state agencies. This change would expand the number of detention facilities used to house UMY and family units.

In addition, the proposed change seeks to detain UMY and family units beyond the 20-day limit as stipulated in the Flores Settlement Agreement, and detain UMY and family units until their immigration case is adjudicated in court (U.S Department of Homeland Security, 2018). These proposed changes could potentially lead to UMY being removed from community-based housing, and limit their ability to integrate into US communities. Given research indicates there is a high prevalence of trauma experienced by UMY who migrate to the US (UNHCR, 2014), the proposed changes to the Flores Settlement Agreement, specifically the increased use of detention for UMY and families, are a further departure from the trauma-informed care that could mitigate symptoms of trauma and additional mental health issues (Crea, Cook Heffron, LaBrenz, & Alejandra, 2018).

Migration Pathways and Immigration Policies

Important differences exist between the pathways to services for unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) in the URM program. While many URM are resettled in the United States from refugee camps or other temporary locations outside the United States, UMY arrive unaccompanied and are exposed to a different pathway of services prior to possibly being admitted to the URM program. These services include long-term foster care; release to a sponsor with post-release services; and straight release to a sponsor with no post-release services (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service [LIRS], 2015).

After arriving at the US border, UMY are typically first apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials. After processing, UMY are transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter facility within 72 hours of their apprehension, as stipulated in the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (LIRS, 2015). However, the immigration process for UMY from Mexico is different for UMY from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. As stipulated in TVPRA of 2008, the majority of UMY from Mexico who are apprehended by U.S. CBP officials consent to voluntary repatriation back to Mexico within 48 hours of apprehension. If a UMY from Mexico reports a fear of returning to Mexico or requests a hearing before a judge, their immigration cases are processed in the same manner as UMY from Central America (Stinchcomb & Hershberg, 2014).

Some evidence suggests the dramatic increase in UMY at the US border led to children waiting for transfer to ORR shelters for weeks (LIRS, 2015). After arrival to the ORR shelter, UMY receive an array of services within the initial days of their placement. Specifically, UMY receive an intake assessment within 24 hours of placement, a medical assessment within 48 hours of placement, and an educational assessment within 72 hours of placement. Within the first 7 days of their arrival at the ORR shelter, separate assessments are completed for the UMY and potential sponsors. UMY receive an initial mental health and UMY assessment within 7 days of placement, while ORR works to identify a potential sponsor within 24 hours of placement and begins the process of fingerprinting sponsors and conducting criminal background checks within 3 days of placement in an ORR shelter (LIRS, 2015).

Between 7 and 30 days of placement in an ORR shelter, ORR and partner agencies complete an array of assessments and services to facilitate family reunification or placement with a sponsor. Data from FY 2017 indicate the average length of stay for UMY in ORR shelter and transitional foster care placements exceeded the standard of between 7 and 30 days, and was an average of 41 days (ORR, 2018). These services include ongoing weekly contact with a case coordinator, updating health and mental health information, and completing an Unaccompanied Children (UC) case review if the UMY is placed with a sponsor after 15 days in ORR custody. If the UMY remains in care, the case review is completed by day 30. After reunification, ongoing services include completing a sponsor or family reunification assessment, a home visit to the foster home in alignment with the existing laws and regulations of the local jurisdiction, and weekly case management meetings with the UMY (LIRS, 2015). In the event a caregiver or sponsor is not identified for reunification, UMY are typically placed in long-term foster care. Under the TVPRA of 2008, ORR is required to complete a home study for “child trafficking victims; children with disabilities or other special needs; children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, or those with mental health issues” (LIRS, 2015, p. 16). However, research suggests ORR requests home studies on a limited basis, possibly overlooking vulnerable children who have been separated from their caregivers for extended periods of time, yet do not meet the criteria for a home study as outlined by the TVPRA (LIRS, 2015).

A third possible exit from ORR custody is when UMY are identified as being low risk and are directly reunified with caregivers or a sponsor, with no ongoing services. According to LIRS (2015), UMY who are placed in long-term foster care likely receive some type of relief from deportation, while the legal outcomes for UMY released to caregivers or sponsors with or without post-release services are less known (LIRS, 2015). Data indicate UMY are represented by an attorney in approximately 32% of immigration cases. Furthermore, UMY with legal representation received relief from deportation in 73% of cases, whereas UMY without legal representation received relief from deportation in 15% of cases (Transactional Records Clearing House, TRAC, 2014). Along with understanding migration pathways and immigration policies for URM and UMY, an analysis of mental health, legal, education, and family reunification implications allows for further examination of factors related to adaptation for URM and UMY after their arrival to the United States.

Mental Health Implications

Research indicates a host of risk factors are associated with suboptimal mental health outcomes for unaccompanied youth both in the United States and in settings around the world. For example, Geltman et al. (2005) completed a descriptive study of unaccompanied refugee minors from Sudan who were resettled in the United States. The authors found that unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) who exhibited symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were more likely to have been separated from family members during situations of violence compared to URM who did not exhibit symptoms of PTSD. In addition, being the direct victim of violence was associated with exhibiting symptoms of PTSD (Geltman et al., 2005).

Similar descriptive research has identified an association between experiences of trauma prior to migration and symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety post-resettlement in Finland (Sourander, 1998). In a longitudinal study over a period of 18 months of URM resettled in Belgium, Vervliet, Lammertyn, Broekaert, and Derluyn (2014) found that exposure to traumatic events prior to resettlement and experiencing daily stressors post-resettlement were associated with suboptimal mental health for URM. The association between daily stressors and suboptimal mental health, specifically, increased symptoms of depression, has also been found in research with URM in Norway (Keles, Friborg, Idsøe, Sirin, & Oppedal, 2016; Seglem, Oppedal, & Roysamb, 2014).

In addition to the URM population, research also indicates a host of risk factors are associated with suboptimal mental health outcomes for asylum-seeking children and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY). In a cross-sectional study exploring emotional and behavioral problems with UMY from Afghanistan who were resettled in the United Kingdom, Bronstein, Montgomery, and Ott (2013) found that exposure to stressful life events prior to migration was associated with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems, and increased time in the United Kingdom was associated with behavior problems. The authors suggest the association between increased time in the United Kingdom and UMY behavioral problems could be related to UMY striving to exert control over their lives as they experience uncertainty related to an impending decision about their asylum case. In addition, the association between increased time in the United Kingdom and behavioral problems can also be related to delayed onset of PTSD. The association between stressful life events and mental health disorders, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety, has also been found with populations of UMY in Norway (Jensen, Fjermestad, Granly, & Wilhelmsen, 2015).

Research also indicates premigration risk factors are associated with stability for UMY placed in long-term foster care in the United States. Crea, Lopez, Taylor, and Underwood (2017) completed a study exploring predictors of placement stability for UMY in long-term foster care in the United States and found that exposure to violence prior to migration and significantly acting out while in care are associated with a higher likelihood of placement disruptions. Similarly, Goosen, Stronks, and Kunst (2014) found that frequent placement changes between asylum-seeker centers in The Netherlands were associated with mental distress in a population of UMY, emphasizing the importance of stability for UMY in resettlement locations.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of two main resettlement agencies serving unaccompanied children in the United States, completed a study of unaccompanied youth in federal foster care (2012) that examined a range of risk factors including reasons for migration, trauma history, mental health history, substance use history, criminal history and gang association, and significant incident reports while in shelter care. The study sample included 65 UMY and 33 youth eligible for the URM program. Study participants were randomly selected from a larger sample of 385 UMY and URM program-eligible children who were referred to USCCB at the start of FY 2008 through the first 8 months of FY 2011. The majority of unaccompanied youth in the sample were male (65%) and unaccompanied youth from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador comprised more than 75% of the sample. As noted in subsequent research (UNHCR, 2014), a variety of reasons why unaccompanied youth leave their countries of origin are documented and include reuniting with family already in the United States, escaping situations of abuse or neglect in their homes, fleeing widespread violence in their communities, and seeking employment or education opportunities (USCCB, 2012).

Results of the USCCB (2012) study indicate 85% of unaccompanied youth reported exposure to trauma prior to migrating, with separation from a parent or caregiver as the most common type of trauma. Research from Berger Cardoso (2018) also examined the prevalence of trauma and other mental health problems in a sample of UMY, and found that more than half of the sample (56.7%) met the clinical criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition, approximately one-third of youth in the sample (30%) met criteria for Depression, and one-third of the sample (30%) reported experiencing suicidal ideation in the previous year (Berger Cardoso, 2018).

Given reuniting with a parent or family member is a main reason reported for migrating to the United States, the trauma of family separation has important child welfare implications to consider. Unaccompanied youth from Honduras comprised 42% of children who reported separation from family members. In addition to family separation, physical abuse in the country of origin was reported by 58% of unaccompanied youth. Approximately one quarter of unaccompanied youth reported witnessing extreme violence, mainly gun violence, in their countries of origin. Twenty percent of unaccompanied youth reported experiencing sexual abuse in their country of origin, and 20% of unaccompanied youth reported being kidnapped, mostly in Mexico during their migration to the United States, by smugglers who subsequently demanded ransom from family in the United States (USCCB, 2012).

In the same study of unaccompanied youth in the URM program in the United States, USCCB (2012) found that the number of unaccompanied youth with Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) classified mental health diagnoses increased from 13% in FY 2008 to 38% in the first 8 months of 2011. The elevated percentage of unaccompanied youth with DSM diagnoses is congruent with existing literature on child migrants exhibiting elevated rates of mental health symptoms, including symptoms of PTSD (Derluyn, Mels, & Broekaert, 2009; Geltman et al., 2005; Jensen et al., 2015), depression (Bronstein et al., 2013; Jensen et al., 2015; Keles et al., 2016), and anxiety (Bronstein et al., 2013; Jensen et al., 2015).

In addition to mental health diagnoses and symptoms of mental distress, some research shows that UMY report elevated rates of substance use prior to migrating. In FY 2008, approximately 17% of unaccompanied youth in long-term foster care reported substance use prior to migration, whereas this percentage increased to 33% in the first 8 months of FY 2011 (USCCB, 2012). Of the unaccompanied youth who reported using substances prior to migration, alcohol was the most reported substance, followed by marijuana., Research on UMY post-release found that few youth reported active substance use (roughly 10%), with marijuana, alcohol and tobacco being the most frequently used substances (Berger Cardoso, 2018). Substance use was also related to different coping styles. For example, problem-focused coping, or thinking specifically about a problem and concentrating to solve it internally, was associated with higher marijuana use. Social coping, or going to someone for support, was associated with less cocaine, ecstasy, prescription drug, and vapor use, and adaptive coping, or focusing on one’s own strengths, was associated with less use of alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, prescription drug, methamphetamine, heroin, kush, vapor use and marijuana. Although many youth presented with significant trauma histories, these findings suggest that youth were doing their best to deal with these experiences in more healthy ways.

In addition to substance use, research indicates 10% of unaccompanied youth referred for services with USCCB had a criminal history prior to entering the United States. The most common report of criminal history was substance use.

Challenges With Family Reunification

An additional challenge for unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) who arrive to the United States is their reunification with parents or guardians who are already living in the United States. Research on family separation for URM and UMY is limited; however, these experiences are similar to those of other families exposed to immigration-related separation (Berger Cardoso et al., 2017). Research indicates family separation contributes to stress associated with employment, communication, discrimination, and legal status for documented and undocumented immigrants living in the United States (Arbona et al., 2010). Research also indicates caregivers, particularly mothers, are at risk of experiencing major depression when separated from their children. In a study examining depression among Latina mothers separated from their children, Miranda, Siddique, Der-Martirosian, and Belin (2005) found that Latina immigrant women who were separated from their children had 1.52 times greater odds of suffering from depression. Evidence also indicates immigrant youth who are separated from their parents are more likely to experience symptoms of depression compared to immigrant children not separated from their caregivers (Suårez‐Orozco, Todorova, & Louie, 2002). The pain of family separation is further captured in qualitative research analyzing the experiences of migrant women from Mexico separated from their children. McGuire and Martin (2007) write that for women migrating to the United States from Mexico, “separation from children was especially grueling and hovered like a specter over their daily lives” (p. 185).

Upon reunification, challenges remain within the family system, particularly for youth exposed to family separation. For example, youth and families separated in the context of immigration experience what research identifies as an ambiguous loss of the family system (Rousseau, Rufagari, Bagilishya, & Measham, 2004). Ambiguous loss in the context of immigration refers to the uncertainty of a family member’s return to the family system, and the risks associated with living apart from the family (Rousseau et al., 2004). Barnert, Stover, Ryan, and Chung (2015) also suggest an ambiguous loss occurs for youth separated from their caregivers, and that reunification is accompanied by psychological distress for youth due to integrating new identities with existing family dynamics. These challenges of family reunification typically resolve for most youth after a readjustment period. However, in more extreme situations challenges brought about from a stressful reunification can overwhelm the family system and youth can be at risk of placement disruption. Placement disruption can occur if youth run away or come to the attention of the child welfare system because of maltreatment (Berger Cardoso et al., 2017). In addition to challenges experienced with the reunification process, URM and UMY also have unique education needs.

Education Implications

Unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) who enter the United States may have varying education experiences prior to their migration, presenting unique needs to be met in school communities and classroom settings. Exposure to trauma prior to migration may result in maladaptive behaviors in classroom settings and disruptions to accessing education (USCCB, 2013). Yet, research indicates school is an important component for positive youth outcomes and can provide UMY with opportunities to exercise self-control and enhance a sense of agency (Kohli, 2011). Education for URM and UMY is also a critical component to fostering social networks and supporting URM and UMY as they adjust to new settings (Eide & Hjern, 2013). Higher education access for adult refugees is also an important facet for promoting dignity and self-worth while also possibly improving psychosocial outcomes (Crea, 2016).

Research on URM and UMY education outcomes in the United States is limited, although research indicates URM and UMY may encounter difficulty with navigating U.S. education systems due to their rigid scheduling and expectations of youth (Dryden-Peterson, 2015). Crea, Hasson III, Evans, Berger Cardoso, and Underwood (2018), examined education outcomes in a sample of youth exiting the URM program. Their findings indicate additional months in foster care is associated with lower odds of discharging at a K-12 education setting, and higher odds of discharging with a high school diploma or while enrolled in college. They also found differences by country, with youth from Guatemala being more than eight times more likely to discharge in a K-12 education setting, youth from El Salvador being nearly five times more likely to discharge from care with a high school diploma, and youth from Honduras are 76% less likely to discharge from care in a college setting (Crea et al., 2018). These findings highlight important new directions for research on education outcomes for URM and UMY. Along with education implications, URM and UMY experience an array of legal implications as they navigate the United States immigration system.

Legal Implications

The structure of the US immigration system in the 21st century includes laws and policies that expose migrant youth to possible deportation to their countries of origin. The immigration pathway for unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) is separate from unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) in that URM arrive to the United States with refugee status, shielding them from deportation and establishing a pathway to permanent legal status. UMY who arrive without official legal status and in the absence of a parent or guardian are placed in separate and distinct immigration proceedings that bring with it a higher risk for deportation. These children are first placed in removal proceedings in courts of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) within the U.S. Department of Justice (Nagda & Woltjen, 2016). Some children pursue relief from deportation with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The USCIS responds to applications for Special Juvenile Immigrant Status (SIJS), T and U nonimmigrant statuses, and petitions aligned with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The process for UMY seeking relief from deportation with USCIS began with the 2008 TVPRA. Although these alternative pathways to legal relief from deportation exist, most unaccompanied youth appear in immigration courts in the EOIR (Nagda & Woltjen, 2016).

Immigration judges or USCIS officials decide cases that involve UMY in an almost entirely discretionary manner (Nagda & Woltjen, 2016). Importantly, although the best interests of the child—“safety, expressed interests, family integrity, liberty, and ability to develop” (Nagda & Woltjen, 2016, p. 10)—are not necessarily required under statute to justify relief, these interests may inform the decisions judges and other officials make in the course of a court proceeding. In the early 21st century, the US Department of Justice and Health and Human Services have established new programs to fund representation for UMY by child attorneys and child advocates. Nagda and Woltjen (2016) explain that attorneys represent an unaccompanied youth’s expressed interest, whereas child advocates represent a youth’s best interests. Given the vulnerability of youth within the context of an immigration system designed for adults, having two separate forms of representation can most effectively meet the developmental and emotional needs of unaccompanied youth who may not fully grasp the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.

Access to legal representation is an integral part of securing relief from deportation for UMY. Research indicates UMY without legal representation in removal proceedings were subsequently ordered removed in 90% of cases, whereas UMY with legal representation were ordered removed in only 18% of cases (Pierce, 2015). Similarly, data from the Transactional Records Clearing House (2014) indicate UMY with legal representation received relief from deportation in 73% of cases, whereas UMY without legal representation received relief from deportation in 15% of cases.

However, a major gap in immigration policy is found with the lack of formal relief for UMY. Research indicates 97% of court proceedings where UMY are not ordered removed from the United States result in informal relief, including administrative closing of cases. While this shields UMY from immediate deportation, it does not provide any legal immigration status, thereby leading to subsequent unauthorized status in the United States. This lack of formal relief from deportation can have particularly harmful impacts on UMY as they integrate into communities.

UMY in ORR custody receive basic legal services, including a legal orientation program known as a “know your rights” workshop and a list of legal aid service providers to support with continued court proceedings (Stinchcomb & Berger Cardoso, 2018). However, these basic services, as mandated by the US Department of Health and Human Services, do not appear to provide the necessary support for UMY navigating the US immigration system. Stinchcomb and Berger Cardoso (2018) report that only 47% of UMY from Central America had legal representation, as of July 2018. Legal support for UMY from Central America has been inconsistent, with only 32% of UMY having legal representation in 2014 and 56% having legal representation in 2017 (Stinchcomb & Berger Cardoso, 2018).

In their work exploring outcomes for UMY who received post-release services, Roth and Grace (2015) found that geographic placements of UMY can be a barrier to integration if settlement areas do not have adequate health and mental health providers. In addition, the impending possibility of deportation can be a barrier to UMY integrating into communities, and case management services are a critical component of post-release services to ensure UMY are provided services to adjust during their resettlement period (Roth & Grace, 2015). In addition to this gap in immigration policy for UMY, U.S. political climates at the local, state, and federal levels contribute to further marginalizing unaccompanied youth and URM as they attempt to enter and integrate into US communities.

Contemporary Policies and Legislation

Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2017, his administration has focused on key areas of domestic policy, including immigration policy. One of the initial Executive Orders (EO) signed by President Trump was the third EO signed that related to immigration: “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This EO, signed on January 27, 2017, suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, suspended entry of any individual from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days, and indefinitely suspended refugee admissions of Syrian nationals (The White House, January 2017). This policy change hindered the efforts of reunification for refugee families, resulting in some family members remaining in countries exposed to violence or human rights violations (Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, 2017). As noted by the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (2017, p. 9): “The right to reunification of minor children and parents is codified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. No exception is made in the Seven Country Ban for such circumstances.” Such a policy can limit a family’s ability to reunify, placing further burden on unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) who are in the process of reuniting with family in the United States or who are in the United States awaiting the arrival from family members from temporary host countries.

Lawsuits from multiple states were filed shortly after the signing of the EO “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” In response, President Trump signed a revised EO that honored existing visas to the United States, modified the suspension of Syrian refugees from indefinitely to 120 days, and removed Iraq from the list of countries suspended from entry (The White House, March 2017). This revised Executive Order, titled “Presidential Proclamation 9645” was contested in a lawsuit that was heard by the Supreme Court in June 2018. The Supreme Court upheld Presidential Proclamation 9645 in a 5-4 decision, restricting travel to the US on nationals from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Somalia (The White House, June 2018). This US Supreme Court decision is further indication that continued research is needed to fully understand how this policy affects the health and well-being of URM and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) in the United States. Social work, in particular, is a profession uniquely suited to design and implement research projects that address these challenging questions.

Recent changes in U.S. immigration policy include the termination of Temporary Protected Status. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is designated “due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country's nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2018a, para. 3). Conditions that lead to TPS being designated include ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters, or “Other extraordinary and temporary conditions” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2018a). The termination of TPS has focused on specific countries. On January 8, 2018, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen M. Nielsen, announced the United States would be terminating the Temporary Protected Status of Salvadoran nationals living in the United States effective September 9, 2019 (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2018b). This follows the Department of Homeland Security announcing on November 20, 2017 that TPS for Haitian nationals will terminate on July 22, 2019 (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2017), and that TPS will terminate for Nicaraguan nationals on January 5, 2019 (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2018c). The termination of TPS is estimated to result in the deportation of approximately 65,000 individuals from Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan (Chishti, Bolter, & Pierce, 2017) and approximately 195,000 Salvadoran nationals (Cohn & Passel, 2017).

In April 2018, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced revised policies for managing immigration at the US/Mexico border. Attorney General Sessions described these changes, known as a “zero tolerance” policy, in remarks made on April 6, 2018: “To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice” (United States Department of Justice, 2018). These changes included a shift in how families detained at the US/Mexico border are apprehended and processed. The administration’s zero tolerance policy called for all adults illegally crossing the US border to be criminally prosecuted. For parents migrating with their children, this resulted in the separation of children from their families at the US/Mexico border. This policy change has resulted in the US government reclassifying children separated from their families as unaccompanied minors (Chishti & Bolter, 2018). The administration’s zero tolerance policy resulted in 2,342 children being separated from their families between May 5, 2018 and June 9, 2018 (Bialik, 2018).

Social Work Implications

The preamble of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) states “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW, 2008, para. (1). Given the vulnerability of unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) and unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY), particularly the risks of adverse mental health outcomes and legal vulnerability, the social work profession is well positioned to respond to the needs of this population. Although the context of the United States is unique with distinct immigration law and policies, some research in other contexts sheds light on possible considerations while working with UMY or URM in the United States. Kohli (2006) writes about how social work responds to the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the United Kingdom and concludes that the social work profession supports unaccompanied youth with navigating complex systems during the process of resettlement, provides psychosocial support to address mental health vulnerability, and establishes safety for unaccompanied youth to reestablish a connection with their peers and communities in resettlement settings. These efforts guided by the social work profession implement meaningful interventions for this vulnerable population in the United Kingdom: “the thrust of practice—the attempts by both parties to rescue ordinariness out of extraordinary lives and to recognize what is familiar in strangers—appeared to bear fruit over time” (Kohli, 2006, p. 9).

Social workers can take proactive and direct steps in supporting URM and UMY during their resettlement to the United States and advocate for their needs in policy development. First, social workers can be an ally to communities that are experiencing stress related to immigration enforcement. Using basic social work engagement skills, social workers can facilitate relationship building with families to ensure they can access appropriate services in the community. Social workers can also assist families with preparing for possible deportation of family members by creating an emergency checklist including completing contact lists, organizing helpful documents including birth certificates, family photos, and passports, and gathering important legal documents including an authorization of temporary guardianship of a minor child (Helms, 2011). Social workers can engage in group work to promote active coping with families and encourage a supportive environment. Social workers are also well suited to consult with schools and educators about the effects of trauma and migration on child development. Informing schools of this can also assist in child integration and reduce the stress of acculturation. Finally, social workers can be active participants in the development of immigration policy to ensure elements of social justice are infused in legislation that concerns children and families involved in the U.S. immigration system.

The social work profession, specifically NASW, outlines specific policies that can support UMY and URM who are resettled in the United States. In the policy document Social Work Speaks, Wheeler and McClain (2015, p. 179) suggest specific policies at the local, state, and federal level to meet the needs of URM and UMY, including policies that “ensure appropriate immigration-related services to undocumented minors in foster care and, if they are eligible, adjustment of their status before they leave foster care.” In addition, NASW advocates for policies that “provide refugee resettlement programs adequate in length and substance to include English language learning, trauma and mental health counseling, and job readiness and placement” (Wheeler & McClain, 2015, p. 180). These policy statements allow for social workers to imagine new ways to advocate for reform and development of policies to support URM and UMY during all stages of their migration and resettlement to the United States.

In the context of the United States, integration of unaccompanied youth and URM in US communities and reunification with families is an iterative process rather than a one-time event (Jani, 2017). Because of this, social work practice in the United States can respond to the needs of migrant youth by promoting ongoing and evolving supports as the needs of migrant youth change during their period of integration. Social workers are particularly well-trained to provide both case management and clinical services for UMY. For example, social workers can collaborate with legal providers to ensure UMY have access to social services as they navigate legal challenges in pursuit of adjusting their legal status. Social workers can also provide important clinical services that target symptoms of PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues that research indicates UMY experience after migrating to the US (Berger Cardoso, 2018).

In addition, as immigration policies evolve in the United States, research indicates social work values can conflict with existing immigration policies in other countries (Cemlyn & Nye, 2012). In examining this issue in the United Kingdom, Cemlyn and Nye (2012) found that immigration policies often take precedence over the needs of vulnerable children and the social work practices that can best serve this population. Learning from this, social work practice in the United States can include active participation in policy formation and advocacy to ensure the needs of migrant youth are addressed. Social workers can engage in policy formation by contributing written and oral testimony to state and federal legislative bodies, preparing research reports that document the needs and strengths of UMY in the US, and organizing voters to engage in political processes that elect officials who hold immigration policy views that align with the needs of UMY and URM in the US.


In the early 21st century, many more unaccompanied migrant youth (UMY) have attempted to enter the United States, mostly from Central America and Mexico. In addition, the United States has a history of serving unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) who are resettled in the United States after receiving refugee status. Both groups comprise a population of migrant youth that deserve special focus and consideration to ensure their needs are accurately identified and appropriately met. Several areas for future research can build the knowledge base on URM and UMY and further construct meaningful interventions to meet their needs.

As URM and UMY who have arrived to the United States experience reunification with family members, longitudinal research will be instrumental in examining their outcomes related to acculturation, integration, and adjusting to a new family setting. Berger Cardoso et al. (2017) further emphasize that longitudinal research is particularly important for youth who do not receive post-release services, as they may exhibit unmet needs. Legal barriers encountered with the U.S. immigration system, particularly securing relief from deportation, is perhaps the greatest challenge UMY face after entering the United States. Social work research is uniquely situated to examine how legal services providers can best coordinate their efforts on behalf of UMY at risk for deportation (Berger Cardoso et al., 2017). Given the importance of school settings and education in supporting UMY with enhancing their sense of self (Kohli, 2011) and fostering their social networks (Eide & Hjern, 2013), future research can identify specific practices educators can implement to support UMY with their adjustment to new school settings and accompanying expectations. Berger Cardoso et al. (2017) emphasize this avenue of school-based research with UMY by suggesting expanding school-based mental health services for UMY in order to identify unmet needs, foster their adjustment, and increase their access to other community-based services.

This article outlines the distinct characteristics of UMY and URM, and how both groups can overlap when receiving services from the US URM program. A broad historical overview of policies and legislation focused on URM and UMY in the United States is discussed, allowing for a fuller understanding of the political context of policy development for migrant youth. The article includes a detailed review of research on mental health outcomes for both UMY and URM in various contexts during their process of negotiating resettlement. Migrant youth in the United States, particularly UMY who do not have relief from deportation, have important legal implications to consider that describes their vulnerability during resettlement and integration. In the context of contemporary US immigration policy, Executive Orders signed by President Donald Trump’s administration contain various provisions that may hinder efforts for reunification of UMY and URM with family members in the United States. Finally, social work practice is guided by a Code of Ethics that can inform the development and implementation of best practices and identify and meet the needs of migrant youth in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Berger Cardoso, J., Brabeck, L., Stinchcomb, D., Heidbrink, L., Acosta Price, O., Gil-Garcia, O., Crea, T., & Zayas, L. (2017). Integration of unaccompanied migrant youth in the United States: A call for research. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
  • Berger Cardoso, J., Goldbach, J. T., Cervantes, R. C., & Swank, P. (2016). Stress and multiple substance use behaviors among Hispanic adolescents. Prevention Science, 17(2), 208–217.
  • Crea, T., Lopez, A., Taylor, T., & Underwood, D. (2017). Unaccompanied migrant children in the United States: Predictors of placement stability in long term foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 73, 93–99.
  • Crea, T. M. (2016). Refugee higher education: Contextual challenges and implications for program design, delivery, and accompaniment. International Journal of Educational Development, 46, 12–22.
  • Crea, T. M., Hasson, R. G., Evans, K., Berger Cardoso, J., & Underwood, U. (2017). Moving forward: Educational outcomes for existing Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) foster care in the United States. Journal of Refugee Studies.
  • Horgan, D., & Ní Raghallaigh, M. (2017). The social care needs of unaccompanied minors: The Irish experience. European Journal of Social Work, 1–12.
  • Kohli, R. K. S. (2011). Working to ensure safety, belonging and success for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Child Abuse Review, 20(5), 311–323.
  • Ní Raghallaigh, M., & Sirriyeh, A. (2015). The negotiation of culture in foster care placements for separated refugee and asylum seeking young people in Ireland and England. Childhood, 22(2), 263–277.



  • 1. Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) is the official U.S. government designation for children who arrive at the U.S. border without lawful immigration status, are under 18 years of age, and have no parent, guardian, or caregiver upon their apprehension in the United States. The term “alien” can connote a dehumanization of this vulnerable group of children. To aid in humanizing their experiences, the authors refer to children whom the U.S. government classifies as UAC as Unaccompanied Migrant Youth (UMY).

  • 2. Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is an immigration status provided to children who cannot be reunited with their parents because they are victims of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a similar reason under state law by a parent. In addition, a court must find that it is not in the children’s best interest to return to their country of origin, and they are thus declared dependents of the court and placed with a state or private agency or private persons (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2011). Additionally, the TVPRA of 2008 “extends URM eligibility to Special Immigrant Juveniles who were in the custody of ORR or receiving services as Cuban or Haitian entrants at the time a dependency order was signed” (ACF, 2017, p. 43).