The border crisis has been depicted as a wave of children and teens overwhelming US Border Patrol resources, traveling mainly alone through hostile territory controlled by drug cartels and gangs. The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow calls this “somewhat misleading,” as least as pertaining to the definition of “unaccompanied.” Many are not traveling with their parents, but most of those are traveling with another adult of their acquaintance:

The “unaccompanied minors” who walked out of the brush on the banks of the Rio Grande and turned themselves into Border Patrol officers last month were not, technically, unaccompanied. In the group of 15 people that we watched that night, about half of them appeared to be adults, including men and a woman carrying a baby, in addition to several children.

It’s the most potent image in the current immigration crisis: Tens of thousands of Central American children on a dangerous solo exodus out of their countries. But from what I’ve seen reporting on this issue from the U.S. border and in Honduras, it is also somewhat misleading.

The term “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” or UACs, as used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, refers to people up to age 17 who are traveling without a parent or legal guardian. It does not mean they are traveling alone.

In migrant shelters in Mexico and Honduras, talking to both children and adults who are making these journeys, or have been deported after failing to reach the United States, the most common scenario seems to be children who are traveling in groups that include adult relatives, neighbors, smugglers or others. Often the children migrating already have one or more parents living in the United States, and they are considered “unaccompanied,” even if traveling with other adult relatives.

Children truly traveling alone “seem[] to be the exception,” Partlow concludes. If so, that provides a different context to the recent flood of immigrants crossing illegally into the US, and that has an impact on how the US can approach it. The narrative thus far is of children left to themselves with no adults to watch out for their interests, and demands for an open-arms policy have risen at least in part because of that perception.

For instance, it colors this otherwise worthwhile look from the Christian Science Monitor at the existing options for dealing with minors in the immigration system. The presumption through all of this is that children will have no adult able to deal with navigating the system:

The most common way such minors are granted permanent residency is not via asylum at all, but rather by receiving Special Immigrant Juveniles Status (SIJS), which aims to help foreign children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. …

What’s more, most unaccompanied minors have no legal representation. Immigration court judges will advise children to pursue a certain legal path, such as receiving an SIJS determination from a state court. But, immigration advocates say, children often lack the resources and the basic understanding of American law to follow the judges’ orders.

“Many of these children don’t even know what a lawyer or a deportation order is,” says Kristen Jackson, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles, who specializes in immigration law. “Once … [unaccompanied children] are taken in, all are placed before an immigration judge. The question is whether they’re going to be able to access a state court, which often depends on circumstances beyond their control.”

These systems may also be difficult for adults to navigate too, but if Partlow is correct, they’ll be present to deal with the problem. Also, these children wouldn’t necessarily qualify as “abandoned or neglected” either, since the adults came with them and are relatives or friends. That would also hamper their eligibility for standard asylum, the other option, because they have to show that the children have been persecuted “as a result of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.” Under the particular circumstances of this immigration crisis, that’s not going to be a common finding.

In other words, “unaccompanied” appears to be a legal term that has been largely mistaken as a descriptive account of their actual circumstances. Kudos to Partlow for clarifying it, and we’ll see how many other media outlets adjust their reporting and their assumptions accordingly.

The federal government has put 200 of the unaccompanied minors in Nebraska, and Governor Dave Heineman wants to know who they are. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) will propose legislation requiring such notification in the future:

Just last week it was announced that over 200 unaccompanied illegal immigrant children have been placed in Nebraska. Now, Governor Heineman and other Congressional leaders in Nebraska want the names of those children.

Today, Heineman and Congressional leaders from Nebraska sent a letter to Secretary of HHS Sylvia Burwell. The letter says that neither Governor Heineman nor mayors of the communities have any formal notification of the large scale relocation.

The leaders are requesting that HHS immediately provide the names of the children to the state, along with identification numbers and dates, and their sponsors names and addresses. …

In addition to that letter, US Senator Mike Johanns has sponsored legislation in Washington dealing with unaccompanied illegal immigrants.

The bill would require the federal government to notify state officials if unaccompanied alien children are placed in their states.

How many of these came across with adult relatives and friends, and where have they been moved?