Children in Custody: A Study of Detained Migrant Children in the United States


Every year, tens of thousands of migrant children are taken into custody by U.S. immigration authorities. Many of these children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives when they arrive at the U.S. border. Others who are accompanied by parents or relatives are rendered unaccompanied when U.S. immigration authorities separate them upon apprehension. Together, these minors are called unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), unless and until their immigration cases are resolved or until the children can be placed with a sponsor in the United States pending the adjudication of their immigration cases. In fiscal year 2019, the ORR held the highest number of UACs in its UAC program history.

This study presents the first systematic empirical investigation of children in ORR custody using original administrative records pertaining to migrant children who were in ORR custody between November 2017 and August 2019. Our analysis reveals an increasing number and proportion of children in U.S. custody who are extremely vulnerable: girls, young children of tender age (260 of whom are U.S. citizens), and children emigrating from countries with high rates of crime and violence. This trend suggests that insofar as punitive immigration enforcement policies may have deterred some children from undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States, those who continue to arrive at the U.S. border are likely children who are most in need of special care and legal protection.

Yet our analysis raises serious questions about the system’s capacity to afford such care and protection. We find that most migrant children held in custody were concentrated in a small number of states, which are different from the states in which their sponsors reside. Only about 11 percent of children reunified were discharged from facilities located in the same state as their sponsors’ states of residence. In addition, most migrant children were in facilities that are extremely large—for example, shelters with capacities of 100 or more children. We also find deep inequalities in the system that suggest that custodial experiences and outcomes of UACs in ORR custody are closely tied to the particular facility and type of program in which a child happens to be placed. Among other findings, our analysis shows that the median time to reunification varies widely between facilities. For example, one ORR shelter’s median time to reunification was nearly eight times as high as that of another ORR shelter. We discuss the policy implications of these findings and consider critical issues that require further investigation—issues that are central to evaluating how, whether, and to what extent the U.S. government is fulfilling its moral and legal obligation to protect migrant children inside our borders.

About the Author

Emily Ryo is a Professor of Law and Sociology at University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She is currently an ABF/JPB Foundation Access to Justice Scholar. Reed Humphrey is a Research Associate at University of Southern California Gould School of Law.