A bill now before Congress “radically reimagines” the treatment of children in federal immigration custody, prioritizing more hasty family reunification for those seeking refuge in the U.S.
The Children’s Safe Welcome Act was introduced July 13 by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also aims to better regulate the unregulated emergency shelters where migrant children and unaccompanied minors are now housed.
“For children who must spend time in government custody, this bill ensures their time there will be brief and that their health and well-being will be prioritized,” Mary Miller Flowers, senior policy analyst for the National Center for Youth Law stated in a press release.
Some key provisions of the bill include phasing out large congregate care facilities, and avoiding family separation unless there’s a safety concern for the child. The legislation would also codify minimum health and safety requirements for children in the immigration system.
If signed into law, the bill would prohibit the use of family detention facilities in all cases, and prioritize placements for unaccompanied children that are family-based. The legislation calls for an ombudsperson to monitor compliance and guarantee legal protection for kids at every stage of proceedings, while prioritizing the “swift release” of unaccompanied minors who have a disability.
Forty child welfare, legal, public health, and other community organizations support the Children’s Safe Welcome Act. Their letter of support states that children fleeing their home countries and seeking protection from abuse, violence, war or religious persecution comprise one of this country’s most vulnerable demographic groups. But currently, they “routinely experience significant harm” while in federal immigration custody. Earlier this year, a district court judge in California ruled that the government had violated the rights of kids in immigration detention.
The bill’s co-authors include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
The Department of Homeland Security is bracing for as many as 161,000 unaccompanied minors who are predicted to cross the border by the end of fiscal year 2022, according to an Interior Department report obtained by the Washington Examiner. So far this year, U.S. officials recorded “encounters” with more than 1.7 million adults, and at least 101,000 unaccompanied minors, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
The pending legislation, aimed at improving their treatment, was assisted by the Chicago-based Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and the California-based National Center for Youth Law.