One category of immigrants that is often overlooked in the larger conversation about immigration is unaccompanied minors. The term refers to youth who are under eighteen years old, undocumented, and have no parents or legal guardians in the United States (National Immigrant Justice Center). They also are the students who don’t get to join the high school soccer team because they have to work a full-time job. They are the hard workers who have to choose between earning a diploma and paying their rent. Every day, they are faced with making decisions about whether to go to school and reach their academic potential or go to work to provide for themselves and their families back in their home countries.
Volunteer at your local high school to mentor unaccompanied minors through high school and into college.
Donate to organizations that provide free legal assistance to unaccompanied minors like Kids in Need of Defense.
Write letters to your local representatives to provide more funding and resources at majority Latino high schools.
Most unaccompanied minors are from Central America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 2018, 49,100 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States. In May 2019, 11,500 more crossed the U.S.-Mexico border (Migration Policy Institute). Most of them leave their home countries to escape political violence, gang violence, and extreme poverty. Because of U.S.-driven instability in Central America, it can be hard to disentangle one of these reasons from another. For me, it was a mixture of all three.
I came to the United States from El Salvador at the age of seventeen. The decision to leave my home country was incredibly difficult and complex. In El Salvador, my parents supported five children on poverty-level wages. When I was five, I spent early morning hours under that never-ending blue sky farming volcanic soil with my dad for five dollars a day. That money went right to my mom to try and satisfy our always hungry stomachs.
As I got older, it became more and more difficult for my parents to support us all. In El Salvador, due to a compounding mix of violence, unemployment, and job scarcity, it is increasingly difficult for young people to stay motivated to get through school and into the workforce (OECD). I knew that if I wanted a better future for myself, one where I could realize my full potential and meet my most basic needs, I would have to leave my country.
I decided to come to the United States alone. I left with nothing more than my wallet, three shirts, a pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, and a water bottle. The wallet contained my high school ID card, my passport, letters from friends and family, and memories; no money.
I traveled through Guatemala with a small group of people. We hitched rides and took buses to get to Mexico. We crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and immediately got arrested and put into a youth detention center. After being released and connecting with my long-distant aunt, I got my first job. My first paycheck was a hundred dollars. I had never had so much money in my entire life; I was excited. Then the bills started piling up.
To pursue my right to stay in this country, I found and paid for a lawyer. Because I am an unaccompanied minor, I had no parental support. My aunt was living her own life, and while I was able to rent a bedroom from her, that was the extent of our relationship. I paid for my legal fees, rent, food, and sent money back to feed my family by working more than fifty hours a week at a restaurant all through high school. This often meant sacrificing things for myself. I ate a lot of fruit because it was cheaper than buying meat, bread, or beans. I spent my first Boston winter sloshing through snow and ice each night after my shift ended at midnight without a winter coat or boots shivering the whole way home.
My high school grades were far from exemplary. I struggled to pay attention in class because I was always tired, my stomach always rumbling, my thoughts easily drifting to the next impending crisis. It would have been so easy to drop out, to disappear into the background. If you are undocumented, you probably have an immigration story just as harrowing and difficult as mine. Some of it I talk about, more of it, I don’t.
Approximately 125,000 undocumented immigrant students like myself reach high school graduation age each year. However, only ninety-eight thousand actually graduate. The other twenty-seven thousand students exit early from high school and, in my experience, these students are most likely unaccompanied (Migration Policy Institute). (Accurate data about unaccompanied minors is nearly impossible to come by because of our often under-the-radar existence.)
Without the support of mentors, I would be one of those twenty-seven thousand young people who leave high school only to drift into the shadows and operate on the edge of legality to try and chase my dreams. Unaccompanied minors are kids. They deserve everything any child deserves, especially a full-time education where they are not pressured to choose between school and survival.
An unaccompanied student in high school has the same responsibilities as an adult except that the adult doesn’t have to attend school while working full time, paying bills, buying food and clothes, and paying for legal representation. Immigration court is the only court system in the United States where you are not guaranteed a lawyer, even as a minor. Maybe you remember hearing those horror stories about kids going to court alone (The Atlantic). It’s all true; we all do. Being unaccompanied is a full-time adult and adolescent existence that constantly forces children to make hard, grown-up decisions.
We need to overhaul our system to support unaccompanied minors both in the legal system and in the community. We need to reform our immigration court structure to guarantee all defendants a lawyer. We need mental health support in schools, especially bilingual and bicultural counselors who can help students process the trauma of independent migration. We need a social safety net that includes unaccompanied minors to ensure they have safe housing, food, and clothes whether or not they have an income. Finally, we need adults who support us—people who can mentor, tutor, and believe in our capabilities—so that we get the chance to be kids before becoming adults.
Unaccompanied minors are children seeking education, safety, and a future in the U.S.
Unaccompanied minors are not guaranteed legal representation and have to find lawyers and pay legal fees
Unaccompanied minors are often left out of immigration conversations and deserve the same opportunities and paths toward citizenship as DACA and DREAMers