During the past several years, numerous unaccompanied children from Central America have traveled to the United States in high numbers.
The following tips offer useful, basic information about this group of students, their strengths and challenges, and what schools need to know to best meet their needs.
Note: This article has been updated from its original version, published in 2014 as a tip sheet.
Who are unaccompanied children?
Unaccompanied children are young immigrants under age 18 who arrive alone at the southern U.S. border. The vast majority of these children come from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras where poverty, unemployment, and violence have risen to alarming levels in recent years.
They have come to the U.S. to reunite with family members, to escape the sharp increase in drug trafficking and gang violence in Central America, and for economic reasons, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the region was hit hard by two powerful hurricanes in 2020 that have also fueled migration north.
Unaccompanied children: By the numbers
The United States has seen increases of unaccompanied children in recent years, with particularly high numbers in 2014, 2019, and currently in 2021. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has processed more than 305,000 unaccompanied children at the Mexico-U.S. border since 2014.
- As of April 2021, there are approximately 12,900 unaccompanied children under the supervision of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); in the latest months an average number of 261 received referrals and the discharge rate was 2%.
- According to 2020 data, over 80% of these children come from Guatemala (46%), Honduras (25%) or El Salvador (14%), where poverty, unemployment and violence have risen to alarming levels in recent years.
- Of these children, 72% are over the age of 14 and 68% are boys.
Unaccompanied children's experiences
The journey that most children have taken most likely has been long, lonely, and perilous. Their trips may have lasted weeks or months. In transit, youth may be exposed to extortion, rape, violence, harsh weather conditions, hunger, dehydration, injury, and other dangers — including the maiming, assault, or death of other migrants along the route.
Once the children arrive at the U.S. border, they turn themselves into Border Patrol agents and claim asylum. They remain in custody of the federal government until a sponsor (usually a family member) can be identified. While they are not supposed to remain in Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours, backlogs can contribute to long delays and overcrowded shelters. Border Patrol transfers unaccompanied children to special shelters run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement across the country. Unaccompanied children spend weeks, or sometimes months, in ORR shelters while waiting to be placed with a sponsor. While in custody, children can face stresses related to caring for younger family members, uncertainty regarding their next steps, and difficulty communicating — especially for those who speak neither English nor Spanish, who may not be connected easily with an interpreter.
In addition, some children may have actually traveled to the U.S. with family members but are now separated from family members because:
- their relatives were not eligible to claim asylum and they sent the children ahead to the U.S.
- they traveled with relatives other than their parents (including their caregivers such as grandparents or aunts and uncles) and were separated from them at the border based on human trafficking laws.
For any children who have been waiting in Mexico recently for the chance to claim asylum, they also may have experienced difficult and dangerous conditions within migrant camps and shelters in Mexico.
News and updates
For more information on the current increase of children at the border, see the following:
- What's Happening To Migrant Children At The Southern Border (NPR)
- Hampered by the Pandemic: Unaccompanied Child Arrivals Increase as Earlier Preparedness Shortfalls Limit the Response (Migration Policy Institute)
- Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border (Council on Foreign Relations)
- Explainer: Why more migrant children are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border (Reuters)
Starting a New Life in the U.S.
Unaccompanied children can face complicated situations after they arrive in the U.S., such as the following:
- They may live with their parents or guardians, but they can also be placed with other family members, friends or foster parents.
- They may have not seen (or perhaps even met) their parents or relatives in a long time.
- They may be struggling with feelings of abandonment if their parents traveled to the U.S.
- They may be surprised to find that reunification is more complicated than they expected.
- They may have new siblings or step-relatives.
In addition, children may have other concerns and responsibilities, such as:
- immigration proceedings that include court hearings, legal appointments, and complex paperwork
- caring for younger family members
- working at a job to support family members (who may have lost jobs during the pandemic) or to pay back the money used to get them to the U.S.
Unaccompanied children's strengths
One thing that educators who teach unaccompanied children frequently mention is their students' strengths, which include resilience, resourcefulness, and determination. While it is important to understand the challenges facing this population, it is also important to understand their strengths and gifts in order to support their chances for future success.
- Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress
Videos: Serving unaccompanied children in schools
Video: The kinds of trauma immigrant students are experiencing
Dr. Karen Woodson describes the many different kinds of trauma that many immigrant students, particularly unaccompanied youth, and students in immigrant families face.
Video: Supporting immigrant students' social emotional health
Dr. Karen Woodson describes some steps she took as a school leader to build a more robust support network for immigrant students, including unaccompanied youth from Central America.
Video: The unique needs of unaccompanied children
Award-winning ESOL teacher Anne Marie Foerster Luu describes how colleagues in her school district collaborated to address the needs of a growing population of unaccompanied children.
Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Unaccompanied children may have also experienced unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic including:
- navigating a new school in a virtual setting, sometimes with limited educational experience
- learning new technology
- handling other family responsibilities or jobs
- economic stresses related to income and housing
- figuring out how the pandemic has impacted the processing of their immigration case.
See more in this article:
Patrick Synan is a high school ELL teacher for newcomer students and students with interrupted formal education in Boston, MA. Many of his students are unaccompanied children from Central America. In this clip, he talks about the experience of teaching students how to use technology remotely and how far they have come since the beginning of the pandemic.
It is critical for schools to note that many of these students may speak languages other than Spanish or English, such as indigenous languages that are spoken in their home countries. For example, there are two dozen languages spoken in Guatemala in addition to Spanish, including 22 Mayan languages such as K'iche' and Mam.
Even if students had some schooling in Spanish in their home countries, they may not speak, read, or write Spanish comfortably. This means that bilingual English-Spanish programs should not be a default or automatic option when they enroll. At the same time, students may feel a stigma about speaking their language and may try to avoid drawing attention to it. Due to this stigma, families may also not indicate that they speak a language other than Spanish.
For practical ideas about how best to serve Indigenous students, see Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students' Success in U.S. Schools.
Special education referrals
Extra care should be taken in any special education evaluations or referrals made since Spanish-language assessments most likely will not yield valid results for speakers of indigenous languages. In addition, any special education process should center on a team approach where factors such as trauma, physical health, educational background, and language background can be comprehensively evaluated.
To learn about one school's experiences, read about Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD and their discovery that they had a hidden population of Mixtec speakers from Mexico.
Related news headlines
- Anyone Speak K'iche' or Mam? Immigration Courts Overwhelmed by Indigenous Languages (The New York Times)
- The Translators Giving Migrants a Voice (BBC)
- A Translation Crisis at the Border (The New Yorker)
- Wanted: Speakers of Mayan Languages, Many of the Them (NPR)
- Border Patrol Speak Spanish, But Many Migrants Speak Indigenous Languages (The World)
Video: Partnering with families who speak indigenous languages
Dr. Karen Woodson shares some valuable lessons she learned about partnering with families from Guatemala who speak indigenous languages.
What Can Schools Do?
1. Understand the context of your students' immigration.
A number of books and films offer more information about this student population and their experiences. One of the most compelling and detailed is Enrique’s Journey by journalist Sonia Nazario, which follows the trek of one young man north from Honduras and offers an in-depth portrait of what Nazario calls a "modern-day Odyssey" — a trip she herself made in order to experience it first-hand.
Video: Sonia Nazario on what schools need to know about unaccompanied children
Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Enrique's Journey, describes the reasons that so many young people are coming north, the dangers they face along the way, and the kinds of supports they need once they get to the U.S.
2. Know immigrant students' rights.
All students have the right to a public K-12 education regardless of their immigration status and language background — including unaccompanied children. If you feel that your school is not meeting student needs, ask for guidance from an administrator, ESL director or your state education department.
3. Establish contact with students' family or guardian.
As with any other student, it is essential to establish a positive relationship with students' caregivers / guardians. These tips on communicating with multilingual families may give you ideas on how to get started. It's also important to keep emergency contact information updated, particularly when working with immigrant families.
4. Lay the foundation for a strong personal relationship with your immigrant students.
Look for ways to build relationships with your students by:
- making them feel welcome
- learning about their interests
- showing appreciation for their strengths and building upon those strengths in the classroom
- looking for ways in which students can share information about their language and culture in creative and meaningful ways
- encourage them to join school activities such as sports or clubs (and looking for ways to make those activities accessible informally if they are juggling other responsibilities).
These may include artwork, journal entries and writing assignments, including in students' first languages.
If language is a barrier, collaborate with an interpreter. You may also wish to consult with a school counselor or social worker for guidance on building a relationship.
5. Look for clues to students' experiences without asking direct questions.
Given the difficult nature of their journey and immigration status, it is critical not to ask students directly about their experiences. They may decide to share those details with you confidentially or with the class. If so, provide a private space for them in conversation or writing. Be mindful of assignments that might make students uncomfortable, and adjust assignments or provide alternates as needed.
If you are interested in learning more about research-based, trauma-informed approaches that can support your work with immigrant youth and how they share their experiences, see the following publications:
- Advancing Language Equity Practices within Immigrant Communities (See Chapter 5, "Transforming the Education of Immigrant Youth)
- Teachers as Allies: Transformative Practices for Teaching DREAMERs and Undocumented Youth (See Chapter 4 on "Strengthening Students' Sense of Self")
6. Request training in trauma-informed practice and instruction.
As a result of these daunting situations, some students may be coping with severe trauma. Ideally, schools serving unaccompanied children should be providing training about trauma-informed instruction to as many staff members as possible, particularly the teachers, counselors, and mental health professionals serving these students.
If you believe your students need more support, it is imperative that you seek assistance from administrators and mental health professionals as your school. You can learn more about resources addressing trauma and anxiety in immigrant students in our related resource section.
7. Reach out to ELL specialists at your school or district.
The ESL or bilingual education specialists in your school or district will play a crucial role in assessing and identifying students' language needs, especially if students have had their formal schooling interrupted in their home country. They also are likely to have helpful ideas regarding building relationships with ELLs, instruction, engaging with families, and supporting students' social-emotional well-being.
8. Use books as a way to connect with students.
Students at all language and literacy levels may benefit from access to a wide range of books, including:
- books about students' home country or culture
- books about their interests
- books that touch upon diverse immigrant experiences, including picture books
- graphic novels
- grade-level reading materials and bilingual dictionaries in students' native language (although written materials may be difficult to find in indigenous languages).
Talk with students first about the topics of different books to avoid evoking trauma; consult with your school librarian and school counselor about how to proceed if needed.
9. Help build a strong support network.
Not only will students need a tour of the important places at school, they’ll also need to be introduced to key staff members so that they are surrounded by a supportive team of adults.
Be aware that students may not be familiar with a school setting and arrive at school without supplies, warm clothes, etc. If you have students who are willing to serve as "buddies," pair them up with your new kids. Students are much more willing to take a chance in a friendly environment.
For more examples of how schools and districts have used a team approach to support their immigrant students, see the following:
- All Hands on Deck: Creating Immigrant Support Teams for Students in Topeka
- Finding Answers for Our Immigrant Students and Families: An ELL District Leader's Perspective
10. Find out what else is happening in your community.
If other students are arriving in your school district or community, there may be more resources available. A new wave of students may make it necessary for individuals and institutions to come together to determine how best to meet this new population's needs.
Keep in touch with other schools, houses of worship, legal-aid organizations and immigrant service organizations that may be working with students and their families on ways that you can all provide help to this vulnerable population. You may also wish to ask your school for help in recruiting volunteers who can provide more one-on-one assistance.
For more ideas, see the following:
- Working with Community Organizations to Support ELL Students
- Video Project: How a Community School Helps ELLs Succeed
For additional information, see these resources:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Resources for Educators of Refugees and Migrants
- Trauma-Informed Care: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Unaccompanied Children (Webinar series, also available in Spanish)
- Rising Child Migration to the U.S.: Research, Data, and More (Migration Policy Institute)
Organizations serving unaccompanied children
The following organizations are just a few of the many that provide a range of services to unaccompanied children and their families, including legal services, support for families both in the U.S. and in Central America, and youth shelters.
- Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
These archived resources were compiled by Colorín Colorado and focus on the experiences of unaccompanied children that migrated to the U.S. during prior migration waves. They offer helpful background information for educators.