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Suppose a family arrives at a US airport on an international flight (without preclearance). Suppose that, for some reason, the parents are not admitted and are instead sent back to their home country. Suppose the children are US citizens and very young (under 5, say). What would happen to the children?

Since the children are citizens, they cannot be deported. However, in this hypothetical scenario, they are too young to be simply left on their own in the airport. Assume the parents want to take their children with them and there are no relatives available to take them instead. Would the children be sent back with their parents?

My understanding is that the airline on which the family arrived is obliged to return the parents to their home country. But, as far as I know, the airline would not be obliged to return the children. This raises the question of whether the children can accompany their parents or whether the parents would be forced to abandon their children.

  • "My understanding is that the airline on which the family arrived is obliged to return the parents to their home country, but it would not be obliged to return the children": what is the source of that understanding? – phoog Oct 3 at 3:55
  • @phoog INA241(e)(1) "In the case of an alien who is a stowaway or who is ordered removed ... the owner of the vessel or aircraft (if any) on which the alien arrived in the United States shall pay the transportation cost of removing the alien." – nightmarescenario Oct 3 at 4:19
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    That creates the obligation to return the parents, but it doesn't preclude an obligation to carry the children. Such an obligation could arise from another section, from regulations, or indeed from another law entirely. – phoog Oct 3 at 4:24
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    @phoog That is, in essence, my question. – nightmarescenario Oct 3 at 4:25
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    @MonkeyZeus Where did you get the illegal immigrants from? It's perfectly possible for non-citizens to have citizen-children in a legal manner, like childbirth during their vacation in the US. Then they can attempt to visit the US again on, say, an ESTA and be denied entry. – Belle-Sophie Oct 3 at 13:46
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As I understand it, parents decide where their children stay and go, and the parents have a legal responsibility under family law to provide for their children. So it's not that the children are "sent back" by the government, but rather that the parents will choose to take their children back with them as the only way for them to fulfill their obligation to provide for their children.

An alternative would be if the parents can arrange for someone else in the US who will come and pick up their children from the airport, and who will provide for the children in the US in the parents' absence, that would be okay too.

But if the parents simply refuse to take the children with them when they are deported, and also do not arrange for anyone to take care of the children in the US, then the parents have effectively "abandoned" their children, in which case the local authorities and family courts will terminate the parents' parental rights and take custody of the children.

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    Thanks for the answer. However, this doesn't address the issue of whether the parents may be forced to abandon their children. I've edited the question to clarify. – nightmarescenario Oct 3 at 2:38
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    It's hard to imagine any airline refusing to let minor children accompany their refused-entry parents back to the point of departure, even if the airline might have the legal right to do so under their T&Cs. – DavidSupportsMonica Oct 3 at 3:38
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    @David What if it's a United flight? – nightmarescenario Oct 3 at 4:39
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    @nightmarescenario It feels to me you believe that the airline will transport the parents for free. This is not the case - they have to transport them, but they will try their darnest to get back this money (although this will frequently fail, depending on the origin of the parents). The airline will try very hard to transport the children as well, but it will charge the parents for this. – xLeitix Oct 3 at 10:37
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    @vsz I believe the airline would incur fines for introducing non-citizens into the U.S.A. especially if those people end up sitting in jail on taxpayer money until something could be figured out. So it is in their best monetary interest to send the parents back right away. If the children were to be left behind (abandoned) because the parents couldn't afford to bring them back then I think the airline would like to avoid a media fiasco and just send the kids as well; it's cheaper to do that than getting branded as an airline which separates families. – MonkeyZeus Oct 3 at 14:00

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