In March of 2021, approximately 19,000 unaccompanied children attempted to enter the United States through the border with Mexico. For a small percentage of these children, Florida communities are their new home, where they still face challenges. Many of these children have endured traumatic experiences, and many of them find themselves in a state of limbo as cases clog up a fragile and unprepared immigration system, exacerbating their isolation. 

For decades, the United States has been a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world, and many have sacrificed and risked their lives attempting to reach its shores. In Florida, the arrival of refugees and asylees is woven into the history of the state and can be seen in the diverse culture of the state. In the 1960s Cuban refugees fleeing the Cuban Revolution began arriving in Miami, where the IRC participated in the resettlement process alongside other agencies and community partners in the history Freedom Tower in Downtown. 

IRC supported the resettlement of Cuban refugees in Miami in the 1960s

During this period, around 14,000 Cuban unaccompanied children (UC) were resettled across the U.S. through Operation Peter Pan, marking the first time the Western Hemisphere experienced the mass migration of unaccompanied minors. These children were placed in homes all across the country and as time passed, they became a part of American society and their stories have become a chapter of America’s long immigration history.  

Today, the record-breaking influx of unaccompanied children attempting to seek asylum through the border with Mexico highlights the urgency and desperation by millions to seek safety and stability. The factors resulting in the mass migration of unaccompanied children are many, but prevalent trends indicate that families are in desperate economic hardship, have been victims of gang violence and natural disasters that have destroyed means of employment. The pandemic and its impact on the economy have also exacerbated the need to seek safety and employment. 

The IRC in Miami: Unaccompanied children in South Florida

After entering the U.S., unaccompanied children are referred to federal custody and placed in a shelter system where they may spend days or months, and on rare occasions, years. Shelters search for family- or community-ties within the U.S., and if they can be found, children can be released from the shelter to this “sponsor”. These sponsors include family members, distant relatives and family friends. Today, approximately 200,000 unaccompanied children are in the custody of U.S. authorities across the border and in various detention centers across the country. 

A small percentage of these unaccompanied children will be released to sponsors and thousands will arrive in Florida communities where many challenges await them. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) reports that from October 2020 to February 2021, 1,078 children have been released to sponsors in Florida. Once the children arrive at their new home, they not only face common challenges experienced by newly arrived immigrants but their traumatic experiences related to their separation from their families and other victimization add a layer of barriers to their long-term sustainability.  

What drives unaccompanied children to leave their home and country and endure a difficult and unsafe journey, is often a multitude of traumas. These traumas can impact a child’s development, and if unaddressed, can impede their mental health, relationships, and academic progress. Post-release to sponsors, unaccompanied children are often entering a new home environment with a sponsor they may not have seen for years or even know. Trying to integrate into a new family, new community, and new country all cause additional stress which may compound any original traumas.  

Because unaccompanied children are not eligible for federal and state benefits and because they usually speak a language other than English, it is very difficult for them to access the mental health resources needed to help them heal, cope, and adjust to their new environment. Addressing these unmet mental health needs is a focal point in providing support to unaccompanied children and the IRC  started to bolster its mental health referral network to ensure its clients are able to access critical services.  

“Unaccompanied minors face distinctive challenges as a result of traumatic experiences in their home country or along their journey to the United States. The lack of protective factors especially affects the view of themselves in our communities. Access to mental health services enhance the minor's ability to be resilient and improve their overall well-being.” - Kristina Montes, IRC’s Unaccompanied Children Senior Caseworker 

Since the beginning of 2021, the IRC in Miami has developed screening tools that allow the identification of mental health needs as unaccompanied children cases are received by caseworkers.  The results of the screening tools allow UC caseworkers to better understand how they can provide effective support as unaccompanied children heal and integrate into the community. In March, the IRC in Miami was awarded a pilot grant by the Tomberg Family Philanthropies to implement mental health screenings and training modules that will allow unaccompanied children to access mental health supports they need to decrease distress, increase adaptive functioning and improve long-term resilience. 

Despite these daunting challenges, unaccompanied children across Florida communities continue to forge a path forward. Their desire to prosper and seek safety is strongly present as they enroll in school and start to integrate into their community. Their remarkable resilience is inspiring as many unaccompanied children have pride for having endured and survived the arduous journey to the U.S., one UC saying: 

“At least we are here, if I made it all the way here, I can do anything.” - Camilo, Unaccompanied Child (The name of the UC is changed for their safety and privacy). 

The unaccompanied children in our communities demonstrate their desire to belong, succeed and contribute by living each day with intentionality and tenacity. Nevertheless, these remarkable young people are children who at no fault of their own face tremendous challenges and need the support of the community. In the coming months, we will be exploring the experiences and challenges many unaccompanied children face once they’ve arrived in the U.S. We will highlight these untold stories through our monthly newsletters that will cover specific topics. We hope you can join us next month as we discuss the education landscape for unaccompanied children. 

To learn more about the work of the IRC in Florida and for information on how you can get involved with the IRC as a donor or volunteer, please contact Development Manager, JC Torres, at [email protected] or 786-575-2359. 

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