July 22, 2014

Children 12 and under are fastest growing group of unaccompanied minors at U.S. border

Ages of unaccompanied children crossing US border from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala

As the number of unaccompanied children trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has surged, the increase in apprehensions among children ages 12 and younger has been far greater than among teens, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of previously unreleased government data.

The new data show a 117% increase in the number of unaccompanied children ages 12 and younger caught at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year compared with last fiscal year. By comparison, the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied teenagers ages 13-17 has increased by only 12% over the same time period.

Even though the growth is higher among younger children, the bulk of unaccompanied children caught at the border remain teenagers. In fiscal year 2013, nine-in-ten minors apprehended at the border were teens. This share has dropped as the number of younger children making the dangerous trip has risen dramatically: In the first eight months of fiscal year 2014, 84% were teens.

The new figures, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Pew Research Center, provide the first publicly available detailed portrait of the age and home country of child migrants—unaccompanied and accompanied– caught at the U.S.-Mexico border from Oct. 1, 2012, to May 31, 2014. The time period covers the previous fiscal year and two-thirds (8 months) of the current one.

Federal and state officials are scrambling to address the record number of unaccompanied minors (those traveling without a parent or guardian) apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, which has surged by tens of thousands. Media reports have described hundreds of children packed into holding facilities in Texas and across the Southwest, sleeping with thermal blankets and overwhelming the U.S. Border Patrol. President Obama has requested $3.7 billion to respond to what he has called a “humanitarian crisis,” and some Republican lawmakers are readying their own bills.

From October through the end of May, 46,932 unaccompanied children, nearly all from Mexico and Central America, were taken into custody, according to data obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Recently released figures show that by the end of June, that number had risen to 57,525.

By comparison, 38,759 children were apprehended all of last fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013.

Number of children crossing US border from Honduras, El Salvador, GuatemalaThe dramatic increase in children traveling to the U.S. without their parents from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, is largely the result of high rates of poverty and violence in their home countries, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security documents. Gang and drug trafficking violence had driven Honduras’s murder rate to 90 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, the highest in the world. In El Salvador, the murder rate (41 per 100,000 in 2012) trails only Honduras, Venezuela and Belize.

When looking at the data by country, a larger share of Honduran unaccompanied minors are younger than 12, compared with those from other countries. More than one-in-four (27%) apprehended  Honduran children were ages 12 and under in fiscal year 2014, up from 20% the previous year.

El Salvador ranks second in the share of minors apprehended at the border who are 12 years and younger, with the share increasing from 17% to 22% over the same time period. Among those from Guatemala, the share of minors apprehended at the border who are ages 12 and under has doubled to 10%. By contrast, just 3% of apprehensions of Mexican minors were young children during both fiscal years. Mexico’s apprehensions in fiscal year 2014 so far have not yet exceeded the previous year.

Among all countries, less than 1% (94 cases) of apprehended unaccompanied children are younger than 1, and only about 2% (785) are 5 or younger, according to data for the current fiscal year. Children ages 6 to 12 accounted for 14% (6,675) apprehensions. The U.S. categorizes children as “unaccompanied” if they are not traveling with a parent or guardian, although they may have traveled with another relative.

While the surge in unaccompanied children has received a lot of media attention, the number of apprehensions of children who are accompanied by a parent or guardian has increased at a far faster clip, nearly tripling (160% increase) in less than a year. In the partial fiscal year 2014 data provided, 22,069 accompanied children were apprehended, up from just 8,479 during all of the previous fiscal year.

Children who travel with a parent tended to be younger than those who travel without one. About eight-in-ten (81%) apprehended accompanied children were 12 years or younger, compared with just 16% of apprehended unaccompanied children, according to the 2014 data.

Among children apprehended at the border with a parent or guardian, Honduras again stands out as the top country of origin. Fiscal year 2014 data shows 12,074 accompanied Honduran children have been apprehended so far, a 434% increase over the previous year.

Topics: Unauthorized Immigration

  1. Photo of Jens Manuel Krogstad

    is a writer/editor focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Ana Gonzalez-Barrera

    is a senior researcher focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

  3. Photo of Mark Hugo Lopez

    is director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Emma Tharrington2 years ago

    Thank y’all so much for helping me with my Spanish Midterm Project!! It really helped A TON. Sending love from North Carolina! Thanks again y’all!

  2. Timothy Straus3 years ago

    Yes, but this is still a tad ideologically biased reporting–for effect. The percentage increase of children under 12 represents the largest increase, but in absolute numbers the “children”, if you can call a 13-17 year old, hardened by the streets of violence and poverty a “child” ( we had many of such age who fought in the revolutionary and civil wars) and the adults still overwhelm the tale of whoa presented. This is skewed for a reason, one assumes?

    1. Cynthia Curran3 years ago

      Well if you are 17 you think you can get some adult education in the US and a job. So, most of it is escaping to get a job in the US. As I mention hit employers for preferring Latino immigrants over native born for construction and service jobs and the surged would dropped. Most of it is economics, granted there are gang problems in their home areas. In fact the slower flow since 2007 is there is less jobs for Latino immigrants because in the service jobs like fast food high school and college graduates are sometimes preferred.

  3. Helen Clements3 years ago

    It bothers me–a lot–that our first reaction to these young people seems to be their legal status, not the fact that they are human children with a child’s need for food, shelter, and support. Where is our simple humanitarian response?

    1. Saira3 years ago

      It is more discusting that the parents don’t take care of their children, don’t you think? They let them trek a dangerous journey by themselves, then the parents should be arested (by their home country, beccause we cannot give them free food and shelter!) for endagering children. The children should be treated like children and be put in orphanages in their countries. We have no room for them here and we cannot afford to give them our resorces. Let’s see you still talk that way when your child can’t go to school because they are over-crowding them.

    2. Emma Tharrington2 years ago

      It is really sad that parents just send off their kids for a better lif and may never see their kids ever again. But, I sadly have to say, it is was it is I guess.

  4. Joann3 years ago

    How can the U,S. afford to care for all these children crossing the border alone?

    1. unique3 years ago

      This is exactly what the United Nations wants.
      Open boarders so they can create a ‘NEW WORLD ORDER.”

      This is so disgusting. When the parents of these illegal
      aliens come to pick up their children, the parents should
      be arrested for “NEGLECT” and put in jail. Then take the
      parents and their children and return them to their country
      or origin.

  5. Ted Toburen3 years ago

    Fairly high degree of disingenuous cheating with percentages. In fact your numbers indicate a higher total number of teenagers being apprehended, but a greater increase of under 12 as a percent. Pretty simple mistake, and poor market research, when an organization who’s specialty makes this error.

  6. Pourou3 years ago

    There are American families willing to take these young children without government assistance and raise them as temporary guardians until their families are able to care for them or until adulthood but no avenue available to get that done! Teenage mothers should not be separated from their children.

  7. Richard Laurence Moore3 years ago

    We must obey the law and take care of these children physically and administratively.

    1. Susan3 years ago

      Obeying the law means sending them back to whence they came – and the families here illegally that they are joining. They are not sex trafficked children which is all Wilberforce law addresses

      1. Barb3 years ago

        You’re incorrect about the Wilberforce Law. While it was intended to try to eliminate sex trafficking, the law applies to all minors, regardless of whether or not they are involved in sex trafficking at the time of their apprehension. The law was written not just to stop the trafficking, but to prevent it as well.

      2. jskdn3 years ago

        It was about trafficked persons until immigration lawyer Rep. Zoe Lofgren inserted Sen. Diane Feinstein’s long languishing “Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act.” into the trafficking bill reauthorization, which had all of two days in Congress from intro till passage. But many of these unaccompanied minors are only that when they cross the border into the United States and turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. (Calling this an “apprehension” confuses it with those crossing border seeking to evade the Border Patrol.) Many, and especially the younger ones, have been brought to the border by family members or smuggling organizations hired by their families in this country, most who are here illegally or at least under the anything-but-Temporay Protected Status. The government then finishes the job for the smuggling organizations, delivering the minors to their families without even so much as checking on their legal status. An HSS representative testified about 85% are placed with relatives. Then these minors with their relatives, no longer unaccompanied, are mostly given free legal representation in a process that will last for years and makes a mockery of enforceable immigration laws.

        If people are concerned with the safety of Central American minors in their home countries then we should do something about creating refuges there to protect them, not allow some them to come here illegally and remain. We could buy much more good for many more people there. But then that wouldn’t serve the political agenda served by those who promote illegal immigration.

        1. Cynthia Curran3 years ago

          Well, you never can blame Republicans like Bush that allow 4 million people into the country to under cut construction wages and also did the Wilberforce act. Its always those liberal Democrats.

  8. OutspokenRed3 years ago

    The headline of both this story and the first chart is just slightly misleading. True statement, maybe, but not very representative of the findings. A better one would be “90% of illegal crossings by teenagers.”