New Report Reveals Trends in Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Children Website


ORR hardened language about unaccompanied children, removed information about services, and reacted defensively to criticism

Children at the ORR facility in Homestead, Florida (Department of Health and Human Services).

Since taking office, the Trump administration has made restrictions on immigration a centerpiece of its agenda. In pursuit of that agenda, the administration uses rhetoric that portrays immigrants and refugees as deviant and dangerous characters. A new report by the Web Integrity Project shows how the Trump administration has used a key platform, the official Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) website, to further this rhetoric. Jim Daley delves deeper into the context and meaning of these changes in In These Times

An analysis of changes made to the ORR website by the Trump Administration revealed three key themes:

  1. Widespread changes in language, especially adding the word “alien” to the term “unaccompanied child.” 
  2. Reduced emphasis on services and benefits. 
  3. Swift and frequent changes in reaction to media inquiries and criticism. 

ORR systematically changed the terms “unaccompanied child,” “UC,” or “child” to the dehumanizing language of “unaccompanied alien child” or “UAC.” Using a content analysis script WIP developed, we show that the term “alien,” which before Trump’s inauguration was used on the ORR website 103 times, now appears 720 times (an increase of 599%). 

During the previous administration, ORR rarely used the term “unaccompanied alien children,” despite the fact that that term is codified in statutory language. The change in terminology seems to indicate a deliberate hardening of language, as in the past, ORR seems to have made an effort to avoid using the term ‘alien,” perhaps recognizing its stigmatizing effect.

Previously, the office made explicit its decision to deviate from the official terminology, explaining on its definitions page that “unaccompanied child” was “the term ORR uses to refer to a child that meets the definition in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 as a UAC,” and that “ORR uses the term unaccompanied child instead of the term UAC.” (See: “Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied: Guide to Terms,” captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine on May 31, 2017.) By August 1, 2017, this language had been removed and the page now included two definitions of “unaccompanied alien child,” stating that “unaccompanied alien child” was now the term the office “uses to refer to a child that meets the definition in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 as a UAC.”

ORR also issued a revision of the January 2016 version of a fact sheet on unaccompanied children’s services, making some notable changes. Language about how ORR values “[t]reating all children in its custody with dignity, respect and special concern for individual needs,” the “child welfare based-model of care for children,” and a paragraph about the push- and pull-factors influencing the decision to “undertak[e] the difficult journey of traveling to the United States” were removed.

In addition to adopting harsher language when talking about the children in their care, ORR also removed language relating to the legal and educational services it provides to unaccompanied children, and an entire webpage relating to the benefits to which refugees are entitled. In an earlier report, we documented how ORR removed language from its “Services Provided” page relating to the legal, educational, and recreational services provided by ORR-funded facilities. ORR went so far as to change the name of its unaccompanied children program to remove the word “services” (from “Unaccompanied Children’s Services” to “Unaccompanied Alien Children”).

As media scrutiny of the office increased in 2018, ORR’s website was frequently changed in reaction to the latest criticism it faced. As we previously reported, ORR appeared to have taken pre-emptive action to limit media access to its staff by removing the staff directory from its website late in 2017, perhaps anticipating the likely fallout from a family separation policy that was yet to be announced but was already in force. Later, ORR was highly responsive to, and defensive about, media stories relating to the family separation policy. Over a six week period in late June to early August, 2018, when outrage over the family separation policy reached its peak, ORR frequently updated its website in response to the latest news stories, updating the “Unaccompanied Alien Children Frequently Asked Questions” page no fewer than seven times to add or remove information relating to topics like the conditions in ORR facilities, sexual abuse of children in its custody, and DNA testing of children. 

In a response to WIP’s queries, an HHS spokesperson said, “Webpages universally are updated frequently to reflect the latest information available. ORR’s website is no different. Our website may be updated as new policies and procedures are incorporated into the program or if current policies are modified,” and pointed to “Statutory Authority” including the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as to why they are using the term “alien.” The spokesperson did not comment on why, in the past, ORR had used language different from the statutory authority, nor what led the agency to change their position in favor of the term “unaccompanied alien child.”