For the past decade, conditions in northern Central America have propelled the migration of vulnerable and often traumatized children to the U.S. border. Many of them arrive seeking refuge as they flee targeted violence, pervasive corruption and natural disasters. The U.S. government’s failure to build a system for their adequate care and to swiftly reunify them with family has resulted in an endless cycle of preventable crises that further traumatize young people as they seek safety.
The harms from this system of mass detention can be avoided if we adopt humane and commonsense practices. Children should not be separated from trusted relatives and confined in makeshift pens by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), going days without being allowed outside to play or even shower. Nor should they be left to face complicated immigration court proceedings alone.
This shameful treatment of children disgraces this country, and it must end. It is not enough for the Biden administration to simply cease the most heinous and gratuitously cruel practices of the previous administration or roll back those practices piecemeal without thoroughly evaluating and overhauling the entire system. Rather, the federal government must take systematic, proactive steps to improve the lives of children who arrive in the United States without a parent or guardian.
The Vera Institute of Justice has outlined eight ways the federal government can build a system that truly meets the needs of thousands of traumatized children who deserve safety, security and respect. If implemented, these recommendations will ensure policymakers center the interests of unaccompanied children and adhere to best practices for child welfare.
Create child-friendly alternatives to reception by law enforcement
At present, law enforcement agencies like CBP apprehend and conduct an initial interview of children who enter the United States without their parents. A better system would use Office of Refugee Resettlement and detailed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff trained in child- and trauma-informed interviewing techniques to greet unaccompanied children and begin gathering potential sponsor information, evaluating immediate needs, and screening for potential abuses during children’s journeys to the United States.
Keep families together
Many children arrive in the United States with safe and trusted caregivers — aunts, uncles, adult cousins — who are not their biological parents. Under current practice, these children are traumatically separated from these family members and placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody. Weeks or even months later, ORR identifies adults to whom the child can be safely released. Often, the child is placed with the same adult with whom they arrived in the United States. A better model would use ORR officials at the border to immediately evaluate family relationships in child-friendly, non-detention spaces. Where a familial relationship is confirmed and no red flags are raised, the child could be immediately released to family and settle in the community to continue her legal case, while retaining child-specific due process protections.
End expulsions of families
Title 42, an obscure public health code, allows the government to reject or expel people based on potential contagions like COVID-19. The Trump administration used this code against unaccompanied children, single adults and families, although a federal court order temporarily halted the process. The Biden administration has not continued to use Title 42 against unaccompanied children, but does still use the summary expulsion practice for adults and families, which has led to at least some desperate stranded children who were part of family groups to cross unaccompanied. Under no circumstances should this practice be resurrected and the administration must reevaluate the use of Title 42 on families.
Quickly reunify children with family
When no viable adult “sponsor” (family or family friend) is available, ORR should place children in a licensed childcare setting. But the agency has relied instead on large-scale congregate settings that are often harmful to children who have already suffered trauma. Instead of devoting money and staff to operate holding centers for children, ORR should swiftly hire a national team of licensed social workers with child welfare expertise who can quickly trace family ties, verify family relationships, assist sponsors with paperwork, and release children to their families or community-based sponsors. Most state child welfare agencies vet and place children with kin within 48 hours. The federal government should get help from these experienced professionals.
Ensure legal representation
Children cannot be expected to navigate complex and confusing immigration proceedings alone, so it is imperative that every child facing deportation have access to legal representation. The government should work to increase the number of attorneys who can work with unaccompanied children by adding federal funding for programs that provide direct representation. It should grow talent in the field by building a pipeline to recruit and train new attorneys to help children in less-resourced areas. It should also organize special “released children” immigration court dockets equipped with child-friendly practices.
Provide immediate temporary relief for unaccompanied children
The Biden administration should grant unaccompanied children deferred enforced departure (DED) or “parole in place,” both of which would allow them to remain in the United States until the age of 21. This would allow children to settle into communities and connect with legal counsel to evaluate more permanent legal relief options.
Amend asylum regulations to help kids pursue relief
The Trump administration issued more than 400 immigration-related policies and regulations, many of which made the asylum system more complex to navigate. To respond more appropriately to the humanitarian claims of unaccompanied children and recognize the unique difficulties they face in presenting their cases, the Biden administration should revoke recent asylum regulations and issue new ones that recognize long-established precedents in U.S. and international law that protect people from persecution.
Invest in post-release services
To minimize the risk that children will be released to inappropriate or potentially exploitative circumstances, ORR should coordinate legal representation and child advocate programs for children released from custody as well as post-release services, such as home studies, family integration and support services, and community programming to support the family or sponsor and ensure safe, stable placements. The United States reportedly spends $62 million each week on ORR custody, including makeshift housing and emergency care for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have recently arrived in the United States. These resources could be better spent building a system that centers children’s humanity and adheres to best practices for the protection and care and importantly swift release to willing family of vulnerable youth.
A version of this column appeared on the Vera Institute of Justice, and was expanded upon by the authors.