The role of Child Advocate is to stand by the child while they are on their own, until they can be reunified with their family. We accompany the child to immigration court and other important meetings, gather information regarding the child’s individual circumstances, and advocate for the child’s best interests while in detention and after their release. Most importantly, a Child Advocate argues for decisions grounded on a child’s right to physical safety, a permanent home, and emotional well-being.
A: The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advocate for the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children. Guided by the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and state and federal child protection laws, the Young Center has developed the only program in the nation that provides guardians ad litem (Child Advocates) for trafficking victims and unaccompanied immigrant children. We choose our policy work based on the issues we see in serving individual children.Q: Who are these “unaccompanied immigrant children?” How do they end up in the United States alone?
A: Unaccompanied immigrant children are minors under the age of 18 who cross our borders alone, without their parents or traditional caregivers. They come to the United States from all corners of the world: Mexico, Central America, India, China, Somalia and Tibet. Most are teenagers, but we also serve children who are 9 years old, 5 years old, eighteen months old and all ages in between. They travel by foot over the border, by plane, or as stowaways on freighters. They’re fleeing political upheaval, extreme poverty, child labor and abusive homes. In other cases, the children have come to be reunited with family members who have preceded them here. Some children are trafficked into the United States, transported by hired smugglers, or make the dangerous journeys on their own. Sometimes they’re too young to understand why they’ve been sent to the United States.Q: What happens to the children when they get here?
A: Some children are arrested and detained by immigration officials. They are placed in one of about thirty facilities scattered across the country, some for as short as one month, others for longer than a year. All children who are apprehended are placed in removal proceedings before US Immigration Courts and are ordered to appear whether or not they have been released from custody to families or other caretakers in the United States. In contrast to US domestic juvenile courts, within the immigration system, authorities do not consider a child’s best interests when determining a child’s fate, and in fact, use the same procedural, evidentiary, and legal rules that apply to adults.Q: What is a guardian ad litem or Child Advocate?
A: A guardian ad litem is typically appointed to represent the best interests of the child. In the immigration system, the guardian ad litem is called a Child Advocate. In December 2008, the President signed into law the TVPRA, which authorizes the government “to appoint independent child advocates for child trafficking victims and other vulnerable unaccompanied alien children.” The Young Center’s program served as the model for this provision of the new law, which was years in the making.Q: Who serves as Child Advocates? Are they paid for this work?
A: Our Child Advocates have diverse backgrounds and all volunteer their time. Most are bilingual and bicultural and come from many different career paths: law students, graduate social work students, teachers and returned Peace Corps volunteers, to name a few. Initially, we ask that the Child Advocate simply spend time with the child and get to know him or her, giving that child time to learn to trust the Child Advocate. The Child Advocate learns the child’s story, the situation in their home country, and what awaits them if they were to return. The Child Advocate then works with Young Center Supervisors to develop written recommendations and advocate for the child’s best interests with immigration authorities.Q: What happens if a child wants to go home or faces an order for deportation?
A: Some children want to go home. Others face deportation against their own wishes. The Young Center aims to ensure that children will be safe if they are sent back to their home country. In all cases where there are significant concerns that a child may be repatriated to a country where there is no adult willing or able to care for them, the Young Center works with non-governmental organizations in those countries to conduct investigations (or home studies) and provide decision makers with written reports detailing what, if anything, the child will return to. If there are concerns that the child will not be safe, we advocate against repatriation.Q: Where does the Young Center provide services?
A: The Young Center is based at the University of Chicago Law School where most of our volunteers are trained. We assign Child Advocates for trafficking victims and unaccompanied children in Chicago and South Texas, and we accept select cases around the country, including New York, New Jersey, Houston, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. The program was launched in Chicago where there are six facilities for unaccompanied children. For the past two years, we have served as Child Advocates for unaccompanied children in South Texas at the US-Mexico border, where there are presently more than 700 children detained.Q: Does your organization work to find broader solutions to the problems these children face?
A: Yes, our work as Child Advocates for individual immigrant children informs our policy work. Beds on the Border: Border communities often lack resources, like psychiatric and counseling services, for children with some of the most complex cases. We advocate for the government to cease the practice of placing unaccompanied children on or near the border, where resources are scarce. Trafficking for Labor: The Young Center is drafting a report on the trafficking of Chinese children for labor to make the case for protection of these vulnerable young people. Family Unity: The Young Center submitted an amicus brief in the case of Encarnación Bail, urging protection of the child’s right to live with and be raised by his mother. The Young Center has advocated for a change in the Immigration & Nationality law to prevent long term separation of children from their parents.Q: Who supports you?
A: We are funded by various foundations, including the MacArthur Foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, The Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, as well as family foundations, including Franklin Square Foundation and the King Benjamin Fund. We also receive support from private donors, receiving many donations from individuals of varying means. We receive funding for our direct service work through the Vera Institute of Justice.Q: Who is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights named after?
A: The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights pays tribute to the children we serve by naming the organization after one of our first clients, Young Zheng, a young man from China who was smuggled by ruthless traffickers at the age of 14, and was expected to work off a debt of $60,000. Fearing for his life, Young endured more than two years of detention and legal battles to remain in the US. Today, Young is a college student and was recently granted citizenship. He has graciously lent his name to this organization.Q: Why should I support your organization?
A: We truly believe in this work and the difference it makes in the lives of immigrant children. If a child shows up on our doorstep, we have an obligation to protect that child until he or she is reunited with family. It’s the least we can do. Volunteer Child Advocates, who speak the children’s languages and often share the same cultural background, create meaningful ties with these children and advocate for their rights so that whatever happens—whether they remain in the US or return to their home country—their safety is ensured.