U.S. Congress Should Reject Bills that Undermine Protections for Unaccompanied Children
Chicago, IL .— Yesterday, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights urged members of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security to reject the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (HR 1153), Protection of Children Act (HR 1149) and The Michael Davis, Jr. In Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act (H.R. 1148) in a statement it submitted for the record.
These bills, if passed, will undercut critical protections for these most vulnerable children, many of whom are fleeing irreparable harm. The bills put children at risk of being returned to trafficking, gang violence targeted specifically at them or their families, sexual and physical violence, and even death in their home countries.
“These proposals are completely inconsistent with our longstanding tradition of protecting the most vulnerable among us – children. Decisions affecting the lives of unaccompanied immigrant children must be made with great care, just as they are for children in every other situation. All children should be recognized first as children, with rights, protection needs and vulnerabilities all their own,” said Maria Woltjen, Executive Director for the Young Center. “Congress should be proposing changes to improve these children’s lives, not put them back in harm’s way.”
Among many changes to existing law, these proposed bills would:
- Accelerate the process of deporting children (including toddlers, preschool-aged children and teens) before they can safely share their stories and without any assessment of each child’s best interests.
- Dramatically increase the time vulnerable children spend in adult or adult-like immigration detention, separated from family and caregivers.
- Require children to establish claims of asylum in adversarial proceedings, rather than before asylum officers (who apply the same legal standards as immigration judges) and without any guarantee of representation or child-friendly procedures.
- Require children—regardless of age, education or language ability—to know about and comply with an arbitrary one-year deadline for seeking asylum.
- Force many children who can establish severe abuse or abandonment by a parent in home country to return to that parent (or to a situation of homelessness), putting them directly in harm’s way.
- Potentially deny relief for children who were forcibly conscripted into gangs.
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The Young Center works to advance changes in federal policy to convert today’s immigration system—in which children are treated as adults—into a justice system that recognizes children as children, with rights, protection needs, and vulnerabilities all their own.
Dedicated Children’s Dockets
Young Center Recommendations for Dedicated Children’s Dockets in Immigration Courts and Asylum Offices
The Young Center recommends that all immigration courts and asylum offices establish dedicated dockets for non-detained, unaccompanied children and children who are primary applicants for relief. Such dockets would enable all immigrant children—whether detained or released—to appear before an immigration judge or asylum officer without being commingled with adults. Scheduling children’s dockets for specific days would facilitate the provision of services that are essential to the fundamentally fair treatment of these children. In particular, immigration officials would be better able to coordinate the children’s access to attorneys and Child Advocates appointed pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Establishing special dockets for released children is a practical and feasible change in the immigration adjudication system, laying the foundation for implementation of policies and procedures tailored to the special needs of children.
The Young Center also promotes change by advocating for incorporation of the best interests of the child principle, with due regard for the child’s expressed wishes, in all decisions regarding immigrant children. The Young Center’s best interests policy advocacy is central to our work.
Best Interests of the Child Standard.
The Young Center proposes a best interests standard for immigrant children in removal proceedings. The proposed change would incorporate the best interests of the child standard – a universally accepted principle—in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The language would bring our immigration law in line with the child welfare laws of all 50 states, under which the state is required to consider the best interests of the child. International law has recognized the special protection needs of unaccompanied and separated child refugees and asylum seekers for the best part of a century. Both those concerned with refugee rights and those focused on child welfare have identified this group as particularly vulnerable and deserving of international attention. The different measures set out in a range of international instruments were codified into one comprehensive treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989.
The term “best interests” appears in Sec. 1232 of the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). The proposed section would provide a definition to guide the assessment of best interests and thereby ensure best interests language is interpreted and applied consistently throughout the INA, and not a piecemeal consideration. It is important to note that the proposed section requires consideration of the best interests of the child. It does not in any way prohibit Immigration Judges, Asylum Officers, USCBP or USCIS officials from considering other important factors, for example safety to the community or national security concerns. Those and many other factors are, and will continue to be incorporated into the decision-making process.
Best Interests of the Child Visa
The Young Center proposes a best interests visa. The visa would be considered after all other forms of relief are denied (with the exception of voluntary departure). The essential element is a finding that it would not be in the best interests of the child to be repatriated.
 UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b38f0.html [accessed May 8 2014]