Typically, Alex’s grandmother rose at five in the morning to start her household chores, but on this summer day in June 2013, she was up an hour earlier. She shook her eldest grandchild awake and handed over a black backpack filled with hygiene products and a single pair of shoes. Alex, she announced, was leaving for America. It would be safer there for a young, queer kid than the small town in El Salvador where they lived, and where Alex had been bullied at school so much for their gender expression that they’d stopped going altogether.
In the previous month, Alex had overheard some chatter about these plans for them to reunite with their father, who had moved to the United States when Alex was young. But it had all seemed abstract. They didn’t know that their departure had been finalized for this day, this hour. Now, as they readied to leave, everything felt rushed and anticlimactic. Alex didn’t get to resolve a fight with their sister from the day before, the kind of silly fight with forgettable origins that siblings have all the time. And as their grandmother, the only parental figure they knew, shuffled them out the door that morning, Alex barely got to wrap an arm around her shoulders in a half-hug. After a two-hour bus ride to the nearest city, Alex boarded another bus north. As the scenery of their homeland blurred by, Alex broke down. That was the last time they cried on the journey. A numbness set in. “I guess it was too much for me, especially at that young age,” said Alex, who was thirteen at the time.
In the following weeks, Alex traveled through Guatemala to Mexico. From Tijuana, they crossed the border undetected into California. They were then guided by people they didn’t know to Texas, Detroit, and finally, via airplane, to New York. Their memory of the end of this journey is a sad one: when Alex finally arrived, their father and aunt did not hug them. “I had spoken to them but not seen them in person, so in my head I was thinking, like: ‘Who are they? Am I being kidnapped?’” said Alex, who requested to go by a shortened version of their middle name because their immigration case is still pending. “There was no bond at all. There was no trust, there was no nothing.”
For their first few years in America, things went from bad to worse for Alex. They begged their grandmother to let them come back to El Salvador whenever the two spoke on the phone. But then, at some point, they stopped asking; they didn’t want to worry their grandmother or make her regret her decision. Looking back, Alex is not sure if America was, unequivocally, the better choice. “Yes, America is safer than the country I was [born] in,” they said. “But coming to America and having no support at all? It’s just the same, if not worse.”
From Mexico to Cameroon
The world over, children are considered a protected class, especially if they are vulnerable due to their status as migrants and refugees. This is also the general consensus in the United States: while it has never ratified the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, this country has nevertheless passed several domestic child protection laws. Still, it has never regarded migrant children as deserving of the same rights as native-born ones.
They are not adults, but children, undergoing multiple fraught transitions—to citizen status, American life, and adulthood—all at once, and often, all alone.
Unaccompanied minors have been turning up at America’s doorstep since at least the early twentieth century. Over the last thirteen years, their numbers have trended steadily upward. A record high of over 128,000 unaccompanied migrant children entered the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) shelter system in fiscal year 2022, according to the government’s most up-to-date tally. Almost 90 percent hailed from three countries in the Northern Triangle region: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rest came from places as close as Mexico and as far as Cameroon. Starting in 2021, after it withdrew its military from the country and the Taliban recaptured the capital, the United States also received Afghan children. Ukrainian minors fleeing the Russian invasion started arriving in 2022.
The motivations of these newer arrivals are, in many ways, the same as the youth migrants who preceded them: a combination of the push factors (conflict, violence, persecution, or poverty) and pull factors (the promise of safety, rights, family, and work) that inform migration generally. Adults leave, and their children inevitably follow.
Yet, despite the fact that this phenomenon is not new, the United States has not developed a consistent set of policies or humane infrastructure to greet young migrants. If anything, the existing framework of rights and protections seems designed to exclude them. Like adult migrants, children suffer neglect and abuse in government custody, family separation, alienation, exploitative job conditions, and legal exclusion. They are not adults, of course, but children, undergoing multiple fraught transitions—to citizen status, American life, and adulthood—all at once, and often, all alone. For most, the prospects and promises that lure them to this country remain torturously beyond reach for years after they arrive.
The 1.25 Generation
Alex takes long pauses while speaking, carefully considering each sentence they utter. But when the conversation moves to their hometown, memories suddenly pour out: playing softball with some cousins after school, picking fruits that looked like yellow cherries from neighborhood trees, retrieving the cows their grandfather reared from the pastures they had set out to in the mornings, crafting crosses out of little branches on Catholic holidays, and tasting their grandmother’s handmade sweet corn tamales and freshly baked sweetbreads.
“Yes, America is safer than the country I was [born] in,” they said. “But coming to America and having no support at all? It’s just the same, if not worse.”
In contrast to this clarity and color, their recollections of their first few years in New York clump together in a dark blur. Alex found the city distressing. Large, loud, and teeming with people, it was unlike the bucolic environment of their hometown. As time went by, Alex’s relationship with their father also did not improve. He had made it clear that he felt Alex was in the United States only to work and contribute to household expenses. Alex’s aunt enrolled them in school, but they still had to get a job as a dishwasher at a pizzeria. Being undocumented, they earned below minimum wage, under the table. When male workers in the kitchen threw around lewd locker-room jokes, Alex felt unsafe, reminded of past traumas.
School was already difficult because of the language barrier and the alienation Alex felt as a new immigrant without a supportive family structure. Soon, it became impossible to balance with the mounting physical and emotional exhaustion of work. By the time they turned seventeen, their father demanded they pay rent. Alex dropped out of high school and started working full-time with a cleaning service, stripping and waxing floors with harmful chemical agents that would penetrate their shoes and stain their toenails.
Such experiences are common among children who migrate to the United States alone. When it comes to education and work, migrant children have been carved out of standard protections for large swaths of America’s past. Undocumented children were not allowed to study at American schools until the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, for instance. And the national ban on child labor that passed in 1938 contained certain loopholes for children who worked in agriculture, which contributed to extensive labor exploitation from the 1920s onwards, says Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez, a historian of child migration at University of Illinois Chicago. Even well-meaning efforts to educate the children of migrant workers in the 1960s were ultimately used to surveil and criminalize them—to expel them “first from school and then from the nation,” as Padilla-Rodríguez wrote in a column for the North American Congress on Latin America.
A slew of recent news reports have demonstrated how rampant the use of migrant child labor continues to be in the United States. In the New York Times, Hannah Dreier found in April that kids from Central America as young as fourteen were pulling night shifts at factories where they packaged Cheerios, working in construction, roofing, and slaughterhouses with disturbing frequency. This is a problem that federal agencies in charge of enforcing child labor laws have repeatedly been made aware of, but in most cases, have not taken action against. Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that works extensively with migrant children, recently urged policymakers to ensure attorneys for migrant children and to beef up the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) to prevent such labor exploitation.
Stephanie Canizales, a sociologist at the University of California, Merced, started researching the lives of unaccompanied kids in the United States in 2011. At the time, she was studying undocumented youth who had come to the country as young children and grown up here: a group whose members are often called “Dreamers” after the DREAM Act, the Congressional legislation that would allow them a path to citizenship and which they were organizing around. These immigrant children were educated in the United States and understood its institutions, flaws and all.
In the midst of her research, however, Canizales stumbled upon a very different cohort of recently arrived youth. Like Alex, these other youth had crossed the border undetected as adolescents. They were full-time workers, not usually enrolled in school, and entirely unfamiliar with various U.S. systems. Every week, they converged at a coffee shop in Pico-Union, Los Angeles, for meetings that served as mini-orientations to the country, Canizales said. The youth would throw out questions about opening bank accounts and studying English, as well as other aspects of navigating American life, and then discuss solutions. Daysi Ximena Diaz-Strong, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois Chicago, calls such migrants coming to the United States between the ages of thirteen and seventeen the “1.25 generation.” They face distinct challenges because of their particular economic constraints, social isolation, and the way they interact with state machinery—often without the assistance of family.
As Canizales later wrote in the journal Social Forces, the lives of the youth who gathered in Pico-Union were almost entirely determined by “work primacy”: the idea that work wasn’t just an important component of their lives but the dominant lens through which they viewed everything. Education was important, but often only insofar as it could help them climb to the next rung at work. Learning English, in that regard, was a priority. The economic constraints that had forced these youths to migrate, and the circumstances in which they migrated, continued to shape their lives in America: sobrevivencia, or survival, was the organizing principle. Some of the youth didn’t even want to stay in this country long-term—just as long as they needed to get a younger sibling through school; to help jumpstart their parents’ dying business; to support children they may have from teenage relationships; or to pay off their family’s debts to landowners, smugglers, and sponsors who had taken them in.
This, of course, made the youth immensely exploitable, and the exploitation they endured only made it more necessary for them to keep working longer, harder, and for less. Before they knew it, years would go by. Their financial obligations would evolve but not disappear. Eventually, these young people would become adults and realize they had spent more time in the United States than in their country of origin, without ever feeling at home.
Innocents in Iceboxes
Migrant youth who cross alone and give themselves up to Border Patrol run into their own set of challenges as temporary—or sometimes, quite permanent—wards of the state. They are first processed at border facilities and then transferred to shelters under the care of HHS.
The influx sites are often warehouse-like spaces, where youth are exposed to concertina wire and people in military uniforms.
For decades, there was little oversight regarding the treatment of minors while in custody; it took a case of severe abuse to trigger regulations. In 1985, fifteen-year-old Jenny Flores from El Salvador was detained in horrific conditions by border agents: she was strip searched, forced to share cells with adult men, and would not be released to her undocumented parents unless they submitted to being deported. She became the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Reno v. Flores, which yielded a landmark settlement in 1997. This agreement set the standards for care for migrant children in government custody: minors must be held in the “least restrictive setting” and processed “expeditiously”—interpreted by courts to mean within seventy-two hours—so they can be released to family members. This and TVPRA—which mandated migrant youth be handed off to HHS in the first place—are the only two laws that still dictate the standards of care and legal protections specifically for migrant children. Even they have been violated egregiously in recent years by three successive administrations.
In 2012, Congress successfully dispatched an additional $132 million to HHS specifically for the “flood” of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the Southwest border. The number had ranged from sixteen thousand to twenty thousand in the three previous years, and had jumped to over twenty-four thousand in 2012. This new spending was, as a report in Politico put it, a “wake-up call of sorts for Washington to a genuine humanitarian crisis, the government’s own struggles to cope, real costs for American taxpayers, with no one fully understanding the dynamics of what is happening.” Two years later, the number of unaccompanied migrants apprehended at the border jumped to almost seventy thousand. The Obama White House “surged” over two hundred border agents to the Rio Grande Valley to “manage increased apprehensions in the sector and bolster detection and interdiction efforts,” and opened emergency facilities to house migrant minors at military installations. The accompanying press release wagged a finger at Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform earlier that year: “The influx of children being apprehended trying to cross the southwest border shows that our immigration system is broken.”
Throughout 2014, human rights groups started filing complaints to government oversight groups about the conditions unaccompanied children were being held in at border processing centers, which migrants called hieleras, or ice boxes, for their freezing temperatures. Children were being groped, assaulted, and denied medical care and access to basic hygiene, advocates wrote. Eventually, lawyers went to court demanding that a judge enforce Flores settlement standards on Customs and Border Protection and on the family detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement where Central American mothers and their children were being detained. In 2015, Judge Dolly Gee found that the government had breached the agreement and ordered remedies.
The legal back and forth went on, however. Once Donald Trump took office, it became clear that the Flores settlement was on the chopping block. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric did not exempt children, nor did his policies. “They look so innocent,” he said in a 2018 speech. “They are not innocent.” Trump officials formally announced the zero tolerance policy that year, tearing kids from the parents they had come to the United States with, labeling them “unaccompanied,” and relegating them to the care of HHS while their parents were referred for criminal prosecutions. In 2019, legal inspectors for the Flores agreement described one CBP site in Texas to Congress as “a hellhole” where children as young as five months were being cared for by other children just slightly older. Many of the children later spent months at massive tent cities and military bases called “influx shelters.” When undocumented family members hoping to take the kids in came forward, their information was shared with ICE, and around two hundred were arrested.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to unravel Trump’s policies and usher in a more humane era of border policy. But while the rhetoric has been tamped down, the deterrence-based approach to immigration remains. The administration’s lawyers have, for example, rejected paying separated migrant families the settlement they asked for in a civil rights lawsuit. And while Biden’s administration exempted children from Title 42, the Covid-19-era policy that let border agents preemptively turn back migrants under the guise of public health, it kept (and even expanded) the policy until courts allowed Title 42 to be lifted in 2023. Later, Biden considered bringing back family detention.
Biden officials also defaulted to the same strategy as their predecessors when faced with an uptick in youth migrant apprehensions: they opened up emergency intake sites and unlicensed influx facilities on military bases. Almost immediately, whistleblowers raised the alarm about the conditions that children at these sites were facing. The Biden administration blamed the lack of preparedness on Trump’s willful dysfunction, but this isn’t a justification many advocates buy wholeheartedly. “The thing that’s been the most consistent . . . and most problematic is we, as a country, have just not prioritized having capacity to serve unaccompanied children,” said Lorie Davidson, the director of children and family services at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of the largest resettlement agencies in the country. “We can say in 2014 we were caught off guard, but you can’t also be caught off guard in 2016, 2019, 2021.”
In the course of my reporting, I met a young woman from El Salvador whom I will refer to by her first initial, C., for privacy. C. told me she spent over three years in a government shelter after she crossed the U.S. border at fourteen years old in 2016 to request asylum, because her much older siblings declined to take her in. After the shelter, she was moved to a long-term foster care facility—a group home, essentially—and only then went on to attend public school. Life here “is not what I imagined,” she told me. “I imagined being with my family—my brothers, my aunts, my cousins—but that’s not what happened.” Children like C. often suffer from what advocates call “detention fatigue”: social isolation and mental distress that compound preexisting traumas from their journeys and from when they lived in their countries of origin.
“We can say in 2014 we were caught off guard, but you can’t also be caught off guard in 2016, 2019, 2021.”
Apart from breeding avoidant behavior, depression, and instances of rage, a government-shelter setting isn’t really a preparation for adulthood. It’s a “system shock to what life in America is like,” said Maria Groszek of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, C.’s child advocate. The influx sites are often warehouse-like spaces, where youth are exposed to concertina wire and people in military uniforms. They have to follow an intense set of rules: no touching, no hugs, no pencils in the classrooms lest they hurt themselves. While smaller, licensed government-shelter facilities are better suited to care for unaccompanied children than influx sites, they are also not normal places for children to spend an extended amount of time. In addition to the restrictive atmosphere, these facilities have incident-reporting protocols that can end up punishing kids who need help, prolonging their time at the shelter or prompting a transfer to a more restrictive setting. In 2021, the Young Center and the National Immigrant Justice Center conducted a survey of dozens of shelter service providers to document the impact of these reports. “Many [Special Incident Reports] do not document serious incidents that threaten the safety and health of children,” the authors wrote. “Instead, they frequently document minor rule infractions or developmentally-appropriate child or adolescent behavior.”
The United States has not yet invested in enough small-scale, actually safe licensed shelters, foster care facilities, and community-based care providers for migrant children, Davidson of LIRS told me. Nor does it consider the contextual challenges migrant kids who do have families in the country face after release from detention. Sometimes, as in C.’s case, families may decline to take children in. When they do accept responsibility for them, the familial bonds may be nonexistent or become even more frayed in light of economic challenges. Unlike U.S. families who house kids in the foster system, immigrant families who take in unaccompanied migrant children do not receive any financial support. Financial stress can mount, especially if the migrant kids (or their sponsors) are not eligible for government benefits.
Even after a joyful reunion, things can become strained, Davidson said. “It’s just that anytime you are put through such a prolonged separation . . . there’s a lot of work that needs to happen,” she continued. “It’s not an issue of not wanting to take the child or not wanting to be able to provide for them. Instead, it’s an issue of support.” Ultimately, whether or not youth have access to that kind of support is the key factor in how they adjust to America; it determines, among other things, whether they enroll in and finish school and how secure they are at work, said Canizales, the sociologist. “It really stood out to me that it’s the structural position of being undocumented and unaccompanied—not unaccompanied just at migration, but unaccompanied at settlement—that really matters,” she explained.
A contradictory attitude toward immigrant children has emerged from the United States’ threadbare and inconsistently applied policies. On one hand is the notion that these children are “exploiting loopholes,” as Trump put it, and should be punished accordingly; on the other, that they are victims without agency, exploited by smugglers and put in harm’s way by their own parents—and yet, their exploitation in U.S. factories, slaughterhouses, and fields has not elicited the kind of outrage that would prompt stronger legislative protections. “So they will treat migrant children as if they’re like adult criminals, or they will extend the privileges of childhood innocence—but even when they do [the latter], they are trying to paternalistically justify various rights violations” against the children and their communities, Padilla-Rodríguez said.
The United States fails to meet the narrow goal of guaranteeing the rights and bodily well-being of migrant children, while also ensuring that these children remain without the tools to thrive, engage civically, or contribute politically. In other words, it is increasing the likelihood that these youth are folded into an already immense underclass of criminalized, exploited people without status, safety nets, or structural support.
Beyond the Dream
In the sea of loneliness Alex felt submerged in during their first few years in the country, the only source of light came from people on YouTube who, like them, were into makeup. Alex found online tutorials by people whom society saw as male but who undermined that gender perception by executing perfect swoops of cat eyeliner and sculpting their cheekbones into stark relief. Alex had not known the language to articulate their own identity at the time, but secretly experimenting with makeup allowed them to explore it. “I think that’s how I started to find myself,” Alex said.
Alex also used the internet to find The Door, a nonprofit organization that provides an array of services to immigrant youth in New York City. At nineteen, they became a member and were able to access health support and legal services. The Door helped Alex move out of their father’s apartment and into the Ali Forney Center, a community center for LGBTQ youth, where they didn’t have to worry about making rent and could focus on getting their GED. “It allowed me to breathe,” they said. At the center, Alex felt like they were finally allowed a childhood: they blew out candles on their birthday cake, cooked for their housemates, played games. The shelter staff also helped shape Alex’s résumé and explained what internships were, aspects of adulthood they had been in the dark about. During their time there, Alex started using they/them pronouns.
The Door also helped Alex file an application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a pathway to citizenship laid out in 2008 for immigrant kids who have been abused or neglected by at least one parent. It is “the only policy under U.S. immigration law that takes into account the best interests of the child,” according to Chiara Galli, a University of Chicago sociologist who has written about unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. But even this pathway is prone to dysfunction and clogs. As of April 2021, over forty-four thousand kids who had applied for SIJS remained in a backlog, according to a report coauthored by The Door, Tulane Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Law Clinic, and a coalition of seventy service providers. A new paper published in the Georgetown Law Journal analyzed tens of thousands of SIJS applications and found preventable delays and inconsistent denials in addition to the growing backlog. The authors concluded that immigrant children in the SIJS pipeline experienced “a crisis of double exclusion”—an “exile from a protected childhood as well as an exclusion from a successful transition to adulthood.” Not only did the immigration bureaucracy fail to protect them from abuse, it also kept them from accessing the tenets of adult life, like working legally, receiving medical care, or applying for affordable secondary education.
Alex filed their SIJS application in 2021, right before they turned twenty-one, the cutoff age for applicants. They obtained temporary work authorization a year later while their application was being processed. Three years on, they are still waiting for a final decision. Only once Alex’s SIJS has been approved will they be able to transition to a green card and ultimately become a U.S. citizen. This future, however uncertain, is possible because of Alex’s own persistence, as well as their ability to find resources in the absence of those the government should have provided—and, of course, a little bit of luck. But that’s what it comes down to: the responsibility of ensuring the long-term well-being of migrant youth in this country is a burden placed on the children themselves and, sometimes, a smattering of nongovernmental organizations. If these children manage to find a foothold, they do it in spite of the odds stacked against them by structural and institutional forces.
These days, Alex wakes up early, takes their medicine, and leaves for community college. They attend therapy sessions regularly. The twenty-four-year-old wants to become a social worker and advocate for immigrants—to be the kind of figure they needed when they first came to the country. But they are thinking of their goals beyond the rigid, narrow milestones of American success. One day, they want to have their own farm far from the chaos of the city. “Being in an open space made me feel free,” Alex said. “I want to bring that back.”
This story was completed with the support of a fellowship from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.