HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) —The department of Health and Human Services is required by law to care for unaccompanied minors who have no lawful immigration status in the United States, but one day of their 18th birthday they have a few options: find a sponsor or be tried as an adult in the legal system.
“Once they become adults, they get placed into the detention center,” said Margie Villalobos, an immigration attorney at Villalobos law office. “I’ve had some clients in the past that once they’re detained, they’re like a month away from becoming 18, so they’re already placed into the detention center”
“They cannot serve them after their 18th birthday,” said Magda Bolland, the executive director of La Posada Providencia, an emergency shelter in San Benito.
Villalobos said that most of the time once they turn 18 and have no sponsor “they’re put into the system and put on the docket, for them, it’s usually asylum.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement under HHS handles unaccompanied children directly, and sometimes after aging-out, they are sent to nearby non-profits like La Posada Providencia to locate a sponsor.
“Either O.R.R. or ICE, they call us and we say yes, we have room, they’ll tell us if it’s a young man or a young woman,” said Bolland.
But sometimes a sponsor never is found and they have to be placed in temporary housing such as foster care to find a sponsor before they turn 18.
“To this little girl I was talking to I said ‘do you have a phone number of where you’re going so, we can establish contact?’ She said ‘I lost it in the river when I was crossing,” said Oscar Escamilla, acting executive officer of Border Patrol.
However, HHS reports having an average of 12,000 kids on Monday, and Customs and Border Protection are averaging what they would usually do in one month in just one day.
“The overwhelming demand and lack of resources that are currently available to process the children quickly, the first option is to always exhaust all options to find a sponsor,” said Lindsey Wilkerson, Children At Risk, senior coordinator TXFLC.
Though minors are not being turned away at the border, there is no guarantee they will be re-located immediately.
“There’s a number of unaccompanied minors that come to the U.S. right as they’re about to turn 18 and so unfortunately many of them will phase-out and this makes them extremely vulnerable,” said Wilkerson.
This group of children are more susceptible to incarceration, trafficking and mental health issues according to Wilkerson.