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Explainer: The Office of Refugee Resettlement and Unaccompanied Migrant Children

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) serves vulnerable newcomer populations in the United States, such as refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, unaccompanied children, torture survivors, and victims of trafficking. It is housed within the Administration for Children and Families, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

ORR is legally required to provide for all unaccompanied children in its custody. To fulfill these responsibilities, the office supports a network of nearly 300 facilities in 27 states. 

This explainer gives a general overview of ORR’s purpose, before delving deeper into its work with unaccompanied children.  

Creation of the Office of Refugee Resettlement

Established by Congress under the Refugee Act of 1980 — a landmark piece of legislation that created the United States’ current framework for refugee and asylum protections — ORR provides resources and services to humanitarian newcomer populations in the U.S.  

In 2003, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 transitioned the care of unaccompanied migrant children from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ORR. Migrant kids who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian are now quickly transferred into the office’s custody, a role that has taken on greater significance with the arrival of far more unaccompanied children in the last decade.  

ORR’s Role in the Resettlement Process

ORR’s resettlement programs provide assistance to eligible newcomers, helping them integrate into their U.S.-based communities. While these resources and services cover a vast array of needs, ORR has divided them into five overarching buckets:  

  • Health; 
  • Employment and economic development; 
  • Integration; 
  • Unaccompanied refugee minors; and  
  • Core services. 

ORR-funded health benefits and services include health coverage, medical screenings, mental health resources, and other help. The office’s economic development efforts prioritize refugee career pathways, training, financial literacy, grant programs, employer engagement, and more. Integration initiatives encompass everything from elder services such as transportation and interpretation to youth mentorship and community-based programming. Core services involve job help, funding for refugee assistance, and intensive case management for particularly vulnerable people.  

Finally, ORR plays a crucial role in caring for and providing services to unaccompanied children (UCs) (including a subset of unaccompanied refugee minors). These general responsibilities are the primary focus of this explainer and will be discussed further below. 

Who are UCs?

Under U.S. law, unaccompanied children — or UCs — are defined as people who:  

  • Have no lawful immigration status in the U.S.; 
  • Are under the age of 18 years old; and 
  • Have no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and custody. 

Although this legal definition appears relatively straightforward, the reality on the ground is often far more complicated. Many UCs travel to the U.S. with family members such as aunts or grandmothers, who struggle to prove to U.S. border officials that they are the children’s primary caretakers. Some kids come to reunite with their parents, who are already here. Others make it all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border with their parents, only to cross alone because unaccompanied children have been exempted from certain federal migration deterrence policies in recent years.  

UCs vary by age, gender, and country of origin. In Fiscal Year 2022, about 15% of unaccompanied children were 12 years old or younger, 13% were between 13 and 14, 36% were 15 or 16, and another 36% were 17 or identified as 18 after an initial evaluation. In FY 2022, 64% of UCs were recorded as boys. Although these kids travel from all over the world, most originate from Latin American countries. 

Country  Percentage of UCs in FY 2022 
Guatemala   47% 
Honduras  29% 
El Salvador  13% 
Mexico  3% 
All other countries  8% 

Once unaccompanied children reach U.S. soil, they are usually apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which holds them on a short-term basis before transferring them to ORR. Under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), unaccompanied children generally must be transferred to HHS custody from DHS border facilities within 72 hours. In the 2022 fiscal year, DHS referred 128,904 unaccompanied children to ORR. 

A note: children from Mexico and Canada may be treated differently from other unaccompanied migrant kids and be rapidly returned to their home countries if they are determined not to meet certain protective criteria.

Caring for UCs

Once ORR accepts a UC into its care, officials start searching for the child’s parents, guardians, relatives, or other potential sponsors. Sponsors are adults in the U.S. who assume responsibility for unaccompanied children, so they can be released from ORR’s care. Usually, sponsors end up being parents or close relatives. But unaccompanied children may also be placed with a licensed program or an unrelated adult. 

ORR divides potential sponsors into four categories: 

  • Category 1: parents or legal guardians; 
  • Category 2: siblings, grandparents, or other immediate relatives; 
  • Category 3: distant relatives or unrelated individuals; and 
  • Category 4: no identified sponsor. 

Sometimes, ORR is required or chooses to conduct a home study to determine whether a potential sponsor can effectively meet a child’s needs. A home study entails interviews, a home visit, and a detailed report. If an unaccompanied kid has been the victim of trafficking, has experienced physical or sexual abuse, or has a disability — or if evidence suggests a sponsor may abuse, mistreat, exploit, or traffic the child — home studies are required. If the sponsor is not a relative, home studies are also mandatory under certain circumstances. 

Over the first half of FY 2023, unaccompanied children spent less than a month on average in ORR’s care before being placed with a sponsor (although for some, the sponsorship process can take months). While kids wait in ORR custody, they stay in the least restrictive setting that’s determined to be in their best interest, usually with access to classroom education, mental and medical health services, case management, recreation, and unification services to connect with their sponsors. 

Once a sponsor assumes care of an unaccompanied child, ORR’s custodial obligation ends, but the office still offers programs and safeguards for those who have been released. Some of these policies include:  

  • Attempting at least three times to speak with the child and sponsor through safety and well-being calls; 
  • Referring the child to ORR’s National Call Center (ORRNCC), a 24/7 helpline to connect children and sponsors with local resources; 
  • Offering the ORRNCC as an option to report concerns or ask for assistance; and  
  • Providing post-release services (PRS) to children who received home studies, who were sent to non-relative sponsors, or who could otherwise benefit from ongoing assistance. 

ORR care providers reached over 81% of households through safety and well-being phone calls in FY 2022. However, during a recent two-year period, HHS still lost contact with around 85,000 children, the New York Times reported in February 

If a child is in ORR custody when they turn 18 years old, ORR transfers them to DHS,  and they may be held in adult detention facilities.  

Concerns Related to ORR

While ORR continues to play an important role in protecting and caring for unaccompanied children, a number of high-profile incidents in recent months have raised alarms. Recent fatalities in ORR custody — as well as a series of bombshell reports exposing widespread migrant child labor exploitation across the U.S. — have driven heightened scrutiny of the office and its policies. These significant failures have spurred outcry from Congress and the public, while the Biden administration has responded with a number of policy changes.  

The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Ariana Asefi, Policy and Advocacy Intern, for her extensive contributions to this explainer. 

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