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What 'Unaccompanied Alien Children' Means


Language matters. Words, acronyms - they can shape the way we view a story or a group of people. We'll consider one term that the government uses now with John Burnett, who covers immigration for NPR out of Texas. Hi, John.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the term is UAC - unaccompanied alien children. Increasing numbers of immigrant children as we know, mostly from Central America, have taken the long road to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they've been taken into U.S. custody. And now federally contracted shelters house a record number of children - around 15,000. So, John, take it from here. Why are we discussing this term?

BURNETT: Well, what I found out is unaccompanied alien children was first used in the Homeland Security Act of 2002. A UAC is an undocumented immigrant child, age 17 or younger, who's not traveling with a parent or a legal guardian. I turned to Doris Meissner as a guide on these matters. She is a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. And she was commissioner of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service in the '90s under Bill Clinton.

DORIS MEISSNER: Alien's a word that is technically correct. It just has a connotation that is so, generally, objectionable.

BURNETT: And as we know, the mainstream media doesn't use the term alien anymore. We say undocumented or unauthorized immigrant. The term illegal alien is now in the province of conservative pundits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So how about the unaccompanied part? Are they, generally, crossing alone?

BURNETT: Well, this is where it gets interesting, Lulu. So federal agents only recognize parents or legal guardians as legitimate, accompanying family members. In the past, border agents have usually allowed this type of family unit to stay together as their asylum claims are processed. But many of the children are, actually, not traveling alone. Dr. Amy Cohen is a child psychologist in Los Angeles. She says she's interviewed about 40 kids in custody. Dr. Cohen reached out to me after I did a story a couple of weeks ago on that big tent city in West Texas that's housing some 2,800 UACs. So she objects when the government says these teenagers had crossed the border alone.

AMY COHEN: Many of the children who I've interviewed did not at all come unaccompanied. They came with grandparents. They came with siblings. They came with aunts or uncles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So when the government separates these immigrant children from the people they were traveling with and classifies them as unaccompanied alien children, the explanation they give is that they're doing this for the kids' own safety, right?

BURNETT: Of course. A spokesman with Customs and Border Protection reiterated to me that an adult traveling with a child must certify his parentage. How are they to know if the man who says he's Tio Juan is really the kid's uncle? You know, he could be a trafficker. So in the abundance of caution, the government separates the children from everyone but their certifiable parents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when advocates push back and say it's better for these children not to be alone, what's the response?

BURNETT: Well, as I said, most of the kids are in shelters. And they get released eventually. But first, the government has to do these long criminal background checks on the sponsor in the U.S. who steps forward to claim the child. But Dr. Cohen raises the question, who says the shelters they're being sent to promote a child's well-being? And she pointed me to a recent study from Australia that looked at children held in immigrant shelters versus children released into the community to live with relatives or close friends.

COHEN: The children who are released into the community do much, much better. And the children who are kept in detention suffer a wide range of symptoms and deterioration in their growth and development, in their mental health and in their physical health.

BURNETT: All this matters, Lulu, because the child shelter system has been under enormous criticism for dragging its feet in releasing these children to sponsors knowing they can spend weeks and months in custody. And as I reported last week, the government just announced it's relaxing the screening rules for sponsors in an attempt to reduce the huge size of these shelters that are crowded with unaccompanied alien children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's John Burnett on the immigration beat in Texas. Thank you so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.