Over the past year immigration enforcement has apprehended some 50,000 children, which President Obama has summarized as a humanitarian crisis. Many of these children are coming from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The push and pull of increased gang violence and widespread poverty combined with a dream of a safer life with a better economy attracts youths to the U.S.
What are the children's legal rights once they enter the United States? There is no easy way for many of the children to remain in the United States if immigration police catch them. Many of the apprehended will apply for asylum. A large percentage of applicants will not have the proof, intellectual capacity, or resources to afford an immigration lawyer be able to articulate a winning case to an adjudicator, so they are deported. Other children may remain in the U.S. and live in the shadows without rights to travel outside the U.S., serve in the armed forces, vote, or receive various government benefits.
Some children are held at detention facilities while others are released to live with relatives or guardians already living in the United States. Some of these children work rather than go to school, even though they have rights to attend classes but not permanently work. Asylum applicants wait for months and sometimes years before they are able to articulate their case before an immigration judge.
Some parents smuggle their children into the U.S. at an early age. Parents who abandon, abuse, or neglect their children may lose legal custody over their children to the local government. Then these children may be able to apply for a green card if they remain unmarried and under 21. Other children, however, will not be eligible for a green card even if they are living with good-natured guardians in the U.S. In other words, children who enter illegally with abusive relatives have more legal options than children entering illegally who live with supportive guardians.