Why Are Unaccompanied Minors Traveling Alone to the U.S. Border?

Record numbers of unaccompanied minors have crossed the U.S. Southern Border since 2021. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received a record 128,904 unaccompanied minors, up from 122,731 in the prior year. The vast majority of these children hailed from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

An unaccompanied is defined as a child under the age of 18 who has no lawful immigration status in the United States and, with respect to whom, there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody. 

While statistics show that 70% of unaccompanied minors are between the ages of 15 to 17, the percentage of children between the ages of 0 and 12 has grown 4% since 2018. So many of these children have experienced severe trauma and have been subjected to horrific exploitation en route to the border. 

Many children attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border are asylum seekers left with no choice but to flee their homes. Seeking asylum is not a crime. Every child has a right to safety, protection and a future, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. 

Save the Children is deeply concerned for the well-being all children, including unaccompanied children, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. We have worked in Latin America for many years, addressing the root causes that force children to flee their homes. 

Here's what we know about the issues that are forcing children to make the dangerous journey.

Children are fleeing unimaginable violence in Central America

For years, a complex crisis of violence, gang warfare and corruption has driven children and families to flee the Northern Triangle of Central America –  El SalvadorGuatemala and Honduras – and seek safety and protection in the United States. These countries have some of the highest child homicide rates in the world. 

In a recent survey, the UN spoke with over 400 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle, the majority of whom were forcibly displaced because due to life-threatening harm

"In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags," explains a 15-year old girl named Maritza. "My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. (The gang) told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7. They said if I was still there on April 8, they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen. . . . My mother’s plan was always for the four of us – her, my two sisters and me – to be together. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to come. I decided for sure only when the gang threatened me."

Crushing poverty is pushing families to the brink

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 60% of the population of Guatemala lived in poverty. Honduras and El Salvador faced high levels of poverty as well with nearly 50% and 40% respectively.  

The economic toll of COVID-19 has only further exacerbated difficult conditions.

The pandemic and the lockdown measures imposed to prevent its spread have only pushed millions of children even deeper into poverty. “The increase in poverty will make it very hard for the most vulnerable children and their families to make up for the loss,” said Janti Soeripto, CEO of Save the Children.

The climate crisis has displaced families and children

Extreme weather, such as the back-to-back hurricanes that struck Central America in late 2020, leave many families living in poverty with less food, less clean water, lower incomes and worsening health. The UN warns that many will have to choose between starvation and migration.   

Last November, Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota hit the region, including Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, within quick succession, affecting over 3 million and 5 million people respectively.

Families who were already struggling throughout much of 2020 due to COVID-19 were then faced with the devastating loss of their belongings, houses and crops as a result of the hurricanes. In Eta’s wake, Save the Children immediately sprang into action. Our recovery efforts have thus far reached over 31,000 people. However, the long-term impacts of the devastating storms will be felt for generations. 

“I have no way of describing to you the innumerable heart-breaking testimonies of families who lost all their belongings, or even their loved ones,” shares Modesto Muñoz, a technical specialist with Save the Children Honduras. “It is impossible not to cry.”

How is Save the Children helping unaccompanied children at the U.S. Border?

Children’s best interests must be the guiding principle in all actions taken that will affect kids and families trying to cross the southern border. As such, Save the Children continues to advocate for children’s rights, humane treatment and care

We are also helping meet the urgent needs of children and families by providing cash and critical supplies to a network of more than 35 shelters and social service agencies. 

We are also committed to addressing the root causes of this crisis. We are expanding and strengthening programs focused on protection, education and peace-building in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.   

Through cross-border collaboration, we are supporting children and families throughout the entire path of migration. The same families we support as they travel from the Northern Triangle countries are those the U.S. border communities are welcoming and providing respite.

Since May 2019, our programs along the U.S.-Mexico border have directly served more than 142,000 people, including 72,000 children. Your donation today will support our critical work to help migrant children and families at the border


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