The dramatic surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the southern U.S. border this year is a major humanitarian crisis for the country and for the children who now face unknowable futures. Some of the tens of thousands of children may be shuttled back to their home countries in waves of leased cargo planes. Many others are being placed with family members, while the tracks of some children are apparently being lost to authorities, according to reports.
Many other border children are being routed through temporary border shelters (which can house thousands) into the country’s foster-care system. Given the poor record of that system, some of the immigrant children who are allowed to stay might in the future wish they had been deported.
The humanitarian crisis on the border could easily transition into a tragedy for all foster-care children — foreign and American — forced to live in a seriously broken system further burdened by the surge.
As it is, many of the approximately 400,000 American foster-care children face “permanent temporary” lives of going from one placement to the next to the next. Many are cycled through so many placements that when they age out of the system at age 18, they cannot count their placements. For children who age out of the system, life prospects are bleak: 24 percent of children report being homeless on aging out of foster care at age 18; 42 percent of males and 20 percent of females report that they have been arrested; and 42 percent will not have a high-school diploma at age 19. Such outcomes, unfortunately, should not be unexpected. During their foster-care stays, many foster-care children fall further behind in school at the same time their emotional and mental problems are aggravated by their unstable lives.
Now we have this spring’s influx of tens of thousands of immigrants (or refugees, as some would classify them). If the flood continues unabated, the foster-children population could increase by 25 percent within the next year. The caseloads of already-overburdened social workers will rise, meaning that each caseworker will have more foster families to supervise and will be able to monitor each family less frequently.
To accommodate the added children, the eligibility standards for foster (and adoptive) families, as well as the care standards they must meet with the children they receive, will likely deteriorate. As with many existing immigrant foster children, school systems will be doubly burdened — many of the children now surging into the country are illiterate in Spanish, requiring ramped-up remedial Spanish lessons before they can be taught English. The surge of immigrant children will likely be accompanied by a spike in the reopening of orphanages and group homes across the country, for one main reason: They have the space and the beds, which will come at substantial prices (up to $54,000 per year per child for care and school in North Carolina, if the children don’t have emotional and behavioral problems).
Politicians and pundits have treated the immigrant-children crisis as a sad story for the children who cross the Texas border. If tens of thousands of the children are allowed to stay, it could be an even sadder story for American foster-care kids who will be forced to the front lines of the immigration war.
— Richard McKenzie is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and an economics professor emeritus in the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of Miracle Mountain: A Hidden Sanctuary for Children, Horses, and Birds Off a Road Less Traveled (2013) and executive producer of the documentary Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages. This article is based on a policy paper recently distributed through the National Center for Policy Analysis. He grew up in a North Carolina orphanage in the 1950s.