What happens to unaccompanied migrant children when they turn 18?

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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 once they turn 18, they have few options.

“They cannot serve them after their 18th birthday,” said Magda Bolland, the executive director of La Posada Providencia, an emergency shelter in San Benito.  

Migrants turning 18 must 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 in the detention center.” 

Villalobos said that most of the time, teens turning 18 who have no sponsor are “put into the system and put on the docket for them to apply for, usually, it’s asylum.”  

The Office of Refugee Resettlement under HHS handles unaccompanied children directly, and sometimes after they’ve “aged out,” they are sent to nearby nonprofits like La Posada Providencia to find a sponsor. 

“Either O.R.R. or ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), 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 is never 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.   

As of Monday, HHS reported having an average of 12,000 kids, and Customs and Border Protection is averaging the number it would usually process 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, Wilkerson said.  

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