What should I know about unaccompanied minors?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Unaccompanied minors

Rights of unaccompanied minors in the U.S.


Who are unaccompanied children?

Each year, thousands of children without legal status come to the United States. They may arrive voluntarily or involuntarily. Many of these children have no parents or guardians. 


A child is an unaccompanied minor if they:

  • Do not have a legal immigration status in the U.S.,

  • Are under 18 years old, and 

  • They either:

    • Have no parent or legal guardian in the country, or

    • Have no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. who is able to provide care and physical custody.


If these children come in contact with immigration officials they are often: 

  • placed in immigration detention centers and 

  • subjected to a court process on their own. 

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What protections to unaccompanied minors have under U.S. law?

There are many concerns about how unaccompanied children are treated in the United States. Even so, these children do have some protections that undocumented adults do not have. 


No expedited removal. When unaccompanied minors are stopped at the border, they are often detained by Customs and Border Patrol. Unlike adults, minors cannot go into expedited removal proceedings

  • Minors from Mexico or Canada can be immediately returned to their home country, unless they:

    • Are unable to make independent decisions,

    • Are a victim of trafficking, or 

    • Fear persecution in their home country and might qualify for asylum.

  • Minors from other countries are placed into deportation proceedings in immigration court. 


Least restrictive detention. Unaccompanied minors can be detained, but they must be transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS) within 72 hours. Before that time, minors are held in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detention facilities with adults. Under the law, children should not be held with adults they are not related to. 


The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) manages the custody and care of children while their immigration cases are pending.


Under the law, each child is to be placed  in the “least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child.” 

  • ORR is supposed to reunify children with family members or other sponsors: 

    • whenever possible and 

    • without delay.

  • If it is not possible to release a child, they should be generally placed in a non-secure facility licensed by child welfare. 


Family members who are undocumented should be careful when attempting to take custody of these minors. HHS may share the information of adults trying to reunify with children with ICE. ICE may use this information to arrest and detain these adults. 


The order preference for placing children is:

  • a parent, 

  • a legal guardian, 

  • an adult relative, 

  • an adult individual or entity designated by the child’s parent or legal guardian, 

  • a licensed program willing to accept legal custody, or 

  • an adult or entity approved by ORR. 


In any case, the sponsor must agree to make sure the minor goes to their deportation hearings. 

Right to an attorney. Like adults in removal proceedings, unaccompanied minors have the right to have an attorney. However, the government does not have to provide an attorney, even for children. This means that many children go through immigration court proceedings without a lawyer.

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What can I do if I am an unaccompanied minor facing deportation?

The most important step you can take for yourself or on behalf of a minor is to talk to an immigration attorney. There are many immgration attorneys who will represent you at no cost. If you are in Georgia:


You may have legal defenses to deportation. An attorney will help you understand your rights and options. 


Even as a child, you are responsible for following all immigration procedures, like:

  • Going to court hearings, 

  • Filing change of address forms,

  • Meeting court deadlines.


An immigration attorney can help you understand your responsibilities in removal proceedings.

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How can I find out if a child is being detained by the government? 

Parents or guardians trying to find out if their child is being held by ORR can contact the ORR National Call Center:

  • By phone at 1-800-203-7001, or 

  • Via email at information@ORRNCC.com. 


Family members who are undocumented immigrants should be careful when attempting to take custody of unaccompanied minors. HHS may share the information of adults trying to reunify with children with ICE. ICE may use this information to arrest and detain these adults.

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Last Review and Update: Mar 13, 2022
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