CDFF Newsletter: Unaccompanied Youth Migrants and Mental Health

Monday, November 6, 2023

Unaccompanied Youth Migrants and Mental Health

Hello! We’re back with issue #7 of the California Dignity for Families Fund (CDFF) Newsletter Series: Learning for Immigrant Justice. This month we speak with two of CDFF’s nonprofit partners who specialize in working with unaccompanied youth and providing them with legal and social services. Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and Legal Services for Children (LSC) discuss their clients, trauma and mental health, and how funders can support organizations that work with children.
Over the past ten years, the United States has apprehended and released more than 480,000 unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children to sponsors. All of these children made the journey to cross the border into the U.S. without their parents. Many, if not all, were fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries.
Maybe you are a parent to a school-age child. Or perhaps you have a young relative or neighbor. The thought of one child, let alone nearly half a million, leaving their home and making a solo trek through multiple countries and dangerous conditions for hundreds or thousands of miles seems unfathomable. 

But every day children are risking their lives and safety to try and reach the U.S. Just last year, 127,447 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S. border and were released to sponsors.

Who is Crossing the Border and Why?

Who are the children making perilous journeys to the U.S.? KIND reports that their young clients are:

• Mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Children are also coming from Afghanistan, Ecuador, and Brazil.

• Escaping gang violence, political turmoil, domestic abuse, persecution, sexual assault, parental abandonment, and crushing poverty in their home countries.

• An average of 14-years-old, although more than 20% are under 11-years-old.

• Risking kidnapping, trafficking, and death on their journey to the U.S.

Needs of Unaccompanied Children

Once unaccompanied migrant children are released to sponsors or family members in their new community, they need legal and social services in their native language. Both KIND and LSC provide services that will help children to enroll in school, access medical care, secure a form of identification, and ensure stable housing along with food, clothing, and transportation.

Accessing benefits can often be challenging for newly arrived children. Stephany Arzaga, Associate Legal Director of LSC explains, “Many immigrant youth we represent do not have a form of identification… sometimes because they are asylum applicants. This limits a youth’s ability to access benefits like housing because they do not have the ability to show proof of who they are.” Not all youth get released to sponsors. For those who are on their own, LSC works with local youth homeless shelters (which require proof of identity) to ensure that they have a place to stay – and to prevent them from being transferred to U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention.

KIND provides pro bono attorneys to represent unaccompanied children.
After getting settled into their new community, a migrant child needs ongoing legal aid for four to five yearsthe median time it takes to complete their case in seeking a pathway to residency in the U.S. These children are responsible for obtaining their own legal representation, an obviously challenging task for any child, let alone one who may not speak English or have support from an adult who understands the U.S. legal system. This legal representation is crucial and can be the difference between legal relief and deportation. Hannah Chotiner-Gardner, Chief Development Officer of KIND, points out that “Immigration judges are more than 100 times as likely to order the deportation of unaccompanied children without counsel than represented unaccompanied children.”

It is critical that children be supported as they advance through the complicated legal process toward residency. This legal journey consists of many steps, with each successful step allowing access to benefits (enrollment in school, healthcare, work permit, and nutrition assistance) and ultimately, permanent residency.

Mental Health and Trauma

Legal aid, food security, and housing are not the only needs of migrant youth. Many unaccompanied children have experienced trauma in their home countries due to factors such as gang violence, poverty, and political turmoil. On their journey to the U.S. they were at risk of and may have experienced trafficking, kidnapping, and abuse. Once in the U.S., these children are far from home, separated from their parents and often unable to speak the language in their new community. 

Trauma and mental health issues can limit a child’s ability to function and can prevent them from being able to perform in school, work, or form bonds in their new community. Many unaccompanied children have experienced a disproportionate number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which can impact their mental health. This means that ongoing access to long term health care is vital for migrant children.

Medicaid and Medi-Cal can sometimes be leveraged to provide services to children depending on the state they live in. Some states such as California have county-level programs like ACCESS Center in Los Angeles, which will provide mental health information, referrals, and crisis evaluation teams. In schools, children can access Mental Health First Aid, a program designed to identify mental health needs and then follow up with treatment. 

But despite these limited existing resources and services, Hannah Chotiner-Gardner of KIND points out that, “Immigrant children and youth still face numerous obstacles to accessing appropriate mental health services.” After a referral is made, it can take months for treatment to become available. Further, cultural and linguistic barriers can make treatment difficult even when available. And sometimes, especially in rural areas, children may lack transportation to get to a treatment facility or professional.

KIND's Newark office created a play therapy room to work with children dealing with trauma.

Supporting Mental Wellness

Supporting the mental health of migrant children is important to ensure their overall well-being and adjustment to the stresses of their new lives. Hannah Chotiner-Gardner of KIND explains, “For immigrant children, ultimately the sense of belonging in a community is key. This means not only feeling welcome, but also establishing meaningful networks and relationships with trusted individuals.” 

The conditions to create that sense of belonging and mental well-being can be facilitated by ensuring that organizations like KIND and LSC have the funding and support to work with their clients on a long term basis. As discussed above, an unaccompanied child’s legal case takes a median of almost 4.5 years to complete, and supporting a child’s mental health needs requires ongoing, long term access to social services and healthcare. 

Multi-year flexibility in funding would best serve the needs of the organizations as they work with a diverse population of young migrants with multiple needs over several years.

Stephany Arzaga of LSC says, “A long term goal is to provide both legal and social services to our youth, give them autonomy and control of their legal case, meet them where they are at in a healing centered way, and support overall stability and growth.”
Funders could specifically offer support in the following areas:

Culturally responsive mental health services

There is a need for more therapists and social workers who specialize in working with refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of trauma who have experienced a high number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Culturally responsive mental health services consider immigration-related stressors such as fear of deportation and family separation. These therapists are mindful of preserving a client’s cultural identity as they work to integrate clients into their new community by connecting them to cultural support networks. Culturally responsive mental health services also integrate traditional healing practices when appropriate.

With additional support from funders, KIND points out that, in the short term, they would be able to use their expertise on migrant children and provide training to mental health service organizations. In the long term, Hannah Chotiner-Gardner of KIND recommends, “investing in the development of interns, students, and staff who come from immigration-impacted backgrounds as an integral part of providing culturally competent services.”

Early detection and providing Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) for all schools

LSC suggests investing in early identification of mental health needs by providing all schools with MHFA training. MHFA can be adapted culturally and linguistically to different populations and can be used to train families and caregivers.

Education and awareness of immigrant youth

LSC advocates for educating the general public about youth migrants in the hope that it can lead to increased compassion. They have, for example, worked on projects to share art and stories from migrant youth to raise awareness of their situation. Stephany Arzaga of LSC tells us that, “Immigration has been politicized to the point of creating an adverse environment for anyone who has migrated to a destination country.” Public awareness campaigns could foster a better understanding of the experiences and needs of child migrants and why they had to leave their home countries. A welcoming community would ease the stress on young migrants’ mental health by giving them a sense of belonging.

Sponsor support programs

Many sponsors could use support, resources, and guidance in caring for child migrants and helping them cope with trauma and resettlement. Funding support groups, workshops, and classes would help sponsors understand the needs and issues faced by child migrants and would teach sponsors how to support those needs. This would in turn lead to a more stable home life for child migrants and their sponsors.

Online support platforms

Virtual counseling would be a way to connect service providers to youth in rural areas, which often lack public transportation. Even if counseling was available, a migrant child would often not be able to attend a session in person due to transportation issues. Funding internet and computer access would be a practical solution to remove this barrier to counseling. 
Thank you for reading this issue of the CDFF Newsletter and learning about unaccompanied youth migrants and mental health issues. We hope you are inspired by the work of organizations like KIND and LSC and are moved to invest in efforts that will help set youth migrants on a path to recovery and mental wellness.
Find More By

News type: