Some refugee children who have been evacuated from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover are arriving on American soil without family members, prompting U.S. authorities to send them to government shelters, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials told CBS News.
Since the Biden administration started airlifting at-risk Afghans from Kabul earlier this summer, U.S. immigration authorities have designated at least 34 Afghan children as unaccompanied minors, sending some of them to HHS-overseen shelters for undocumented migrant youth.
HHS officials said some of the children who were designated as unaccompanied minors upon arrival were subsequently reunited with family members who had also been evacuated to the U.S. Some of them traveled with non-parental adult family members, rendering them “unaccompanied alien children” under U.S. law.
But other Afghan children arrived in the U.S. without any family members and remain in the custody of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is required to house them until it finds suitable sponsors or the minors turn 18.
“We are working to ensure that Unaccompanied Afghan Minors who are referred to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) for processing, unification, or placement are placed with licensed care providers that are able to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services,” HHS said in a statement, noting that unaccompanied children do not represent a “significant share of Afghan arrivals.”
While there are relatively few of them so far, the arrival of unaccompanied children from Afghanistan adds a new layer of complexity to the humanitarian, legal and logistical challenges the Biden administration is confronting as it continues frantic efforts to evacuate and resettle thousands of Afghan refugees.
The number of unaccompanied children from Afghanistan will likely increase as thousands of Afghan evacuees arrive from American military bases in the Middle East and Europe where they are still being processed and subjected to security screenings.
U.S. refugee agency officials have told shelter operators that work with the government to prepare for the arrival of more unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the main refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., said the U.S. government should seek to expeditiously reunite unaccompanied Afghan children with family members.
If the children do not have family members in the U.S., they should be placed in long-term foster care programs rather than large shelters, Vignarajah said.
“We know these children have been through so much. Our principal focus should be ensuring their safety and stability,” Vignarajah told CBS News. “We hope and pray that we may identify U.S. ties. There’s obviously no substitute for the love and support of family. We have a moral obligation to give these children what we would for our own.”
Under U.S. law, government agencies are required to transfer unaccompanied minors who don’t have legal status to HHS’ refugee agency.
The vast majority of children housed by the U.S. refugee office are Central American minors who crossed the southern border without their parents. HHS has legal custody over unaccompanied children until it places them with a sponsor, who is typically a family member residing in the U.S.
About 80% of the unaccompanied migrant children who enter the U.S. through the Mexican border have family in the U.S. It is unclear how many unaccompanied children from Afghanistan will have adult family members here who can sponsor them out of government custody.
As of Thursday morning, HHS was housing 14,900 unaccompanied children in scores of shelters across the country, as well as four makeshift housing facilities, according to federal statistics.
While they are entering the U.S. legally, Afghan children designated as unaccompanied minors do not yet have permanent legal status because they are entering the country through “humanitarian parole,” an immigration tool that allows the government to admit immigrants who don’t have visas.
Parole allows beneficiaries to stay in the U.S. temporarily but it does not provide them permanent residency.
Unaccompanied Afghan minors who are able to reunite with their parents could gain U.S. residency through their family’s petitions for certain immigration programs, like Special Immigrant Visas, which allow Afghans who aided the American war effort to resettle in the U.S. alongside their spouses and children.
But unaccompanied children from Afghanistan who don’t have family in the U.S., including those whose parents are unable to be evacuated from Kabul, will need to seek other immigration benefits like asylum to remain in the U.S.
After vetting them in third countries, the U.S. has been temporarily housing refugee adults and families from Afghanistan at four military sites in Virginia, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Texas, including Fort Bliss, which has been housing unaccompanied migrant children since March.