Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Are Vulnerable, Yet Resilient, New Study Finds


Unaccompanied immigrant youth—usually fleeing violence, poverty, and conflict in their home countries—are one of the fastest growing groups of people in our communities, yet also one of the most underserved and poorly understood. A new study has found that these youth endure hardships and face stigmatization in the U.S., resulting in feelings of isolation and disempowerment.

To better understand the needs and experiences of these young people, the Vera Institute of Justice and Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice—with support from the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the Viola W. Bernard Foundation—designed a study that used a participatory action research method, an approach that emphasizes active community engagement throughout the research process. Unaccompanied immigrant youth worked on the study, collecting data, interpreting results, and developing recommendations for improving programs and policies that directly affect them.

The summary of the study’s findings, Struggle for Identity and Inclusion: Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth in New York City, intends to spur state and local program reforms. The study is a first step to examine policies that support social inclusion and promote resilience of unaccompanied immigrant children and youth.

“These incredible young people provided not just firsthand insight into their own experiences and challenges, but also motivation for the rest of the research team to look beyond the data and see how the local justice and immigration systems impact real lives,” said Laura Simich, research director for Vera’s Center on Immigration and Justice.

“We are honored and privileged to have been able to undertake this participatory action research with unaccompanied immigrant youth and some of the stakeholders who interact with them. We are grateful to the funders who supported this first effort and hope additional fact finding and research will take place to continue to bring about evidence-based policies and practice,” stated Dora Galacatos, executive director for Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice.

Through focus groups and interviews with unaccompanied immigrant youth and people from various sectors who have experience working with them—educators, physical and mental health care providers, court system personnel, child welfare workers, and others—the study found that many youth felt a loss of identity when they arrived in the U.S. and had experienced discrimination, suspicion, and confusion from adults and peers.

These barriers were made more daunting when youth—often separated from family and lacking familial support—were forced to navigate systems alone. Despite these challenges, the study also found that these youth had a strong desire to complete their education, enter the workforce, and contribute to their community.

The study’s findings were presented at an event at New York Law School. Unaccompanied immigrant youth shared their personal experiences and expertise with government officials, practitioners, and researchers from a variety of social service systems.

Watch a video describing the research and featuring the voices of peer researchers.

Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice promotes the rights and addresses the problems facing marginalized and low-income New Yorkers through the creation of strategies to reform policies, educate, and provide assistance to right wrongs.

The Vera Institute of Justice is a research and policy organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.


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