Historic Senate Bill: Protecting Children’s Safety in Immigration Legislation

Every day, vulnerable children separated from their parents and families and held in federal facilities around the country are called into immigration courts where they stand alone, without an attorney beside them, before an immigration judge and across from a skilled, government trial attorney. Most of the children have come to the United States fleeing violence, poverty or to reunify with family; many have escaped abuse, trafficking or persecution. All of them are under the age of 18, most of them teenagers but some as young as just a few years old. All of them, at some point, will be required to respond to the charges lodged against them by the government. In no other court in this country would a child face such a terrifying task alone, without an attorney to represent her.

Today, the United States Senate took a great leap forward in addressing this fundamentally unfair disparity. The comprehensive immigration reform legislation approved in the Senate today would require the Attorney General of the United States to appoint counsel for all unaccompanied immigrant children to ensure fair and efficient immigration proceedings.

Last week’s Senate debate also brought prominent attention to the Young Center’s longstanding mission. Since our inception, we have called for a change in the country’s immigration law to explicitly require all federal agencies and courts making a decision about an unaccompanied immigrant child to consider the child’s best interests—what will allow the child to be safe and to develop—as a part of that decision. On Wednesday, June 19, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced an amendment co-sponsored by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) that would require consideration of children’s best interests and that defined best interests for the purposes of immigration law. Within hours, three United States Senators—: Senator Landrieu, Senator Leahy, and Majority Leader Reid—took to the floor of the Senate and spoke about the importance, and primacy, of considering immigrant children’s best interests. As part of the compromise that led to passage of the full bill, that amendment was not voted upon; but there are still opportunities for this now very public issue to become part of any new law.

In the coming weeks, the Young Center will work with children’s rights colleagues around the country to impress upon the House of Representatives the need for comprehensive immigration reform, beginning with the most vulnerable immigrants: children separated from, or facing permanent separation from, their families. We hope you will join us in calling for any legislation to include: 1) appointed counsel for all unaccompanied children; 2) a requirement that immigration officials consider the best interests of children in all decisions; and 3) language requiring the safe repatriation of children to their countries of origin.

For anyone concerned with immigration, this week reflected the challenges and compromises necessary to enact reform legislation. We applaud the Senate for addressing one of the most fundamental problems of our broken immigration law: how it treats children. We urge you to contact Senators Landrieu, Franken, Leahy, Durbin and Hirono to express your thanks for their support of vulnerable children. And we call upon Congress and the President to ensure that all immigrant children are recognized as children, protected, and treated with fairness, dignity and respect.

Please see our website for updates on comprehensive immigration reform as it moves into the House of Representatives. These are exciting times and we welcome your support.


Maria Woltjen                                            Jennifer Nagda
Director, The Young Center                      Policy Director, The Young Center