by Mary Miller Flowers
A new administration is taking office in a matter of days. Starting during a pandemic, the Biden-Harris administration has its hands full, but among the top priorities for the new government will be to undo the harm inflicted on immigrant children and families in the past four years.
If our immigration system put the consideration of children’s best interests at the center of decision-making, it would look very different than it does now.
Recently, a coalition of human rights organizations released a list of ten priorities for urgent action to begin undoing these policies. At their core, the priorities center on this idea: in all decisions, immigrant children must be treated as children, regardless of their immigration status. Any decisions made about a child must first consider their best interests, including their right to be safe, to be cared for by family, to be free from detention, and to have their own views taken seriously. If our immigration system put the consideration of children’s best interests at the center of decision-making, it would look very different than it does now. By adopting these priorities, the Biden-Harris administration could remake some of the worst aspects of our system and move it closer to one designed around the needs of children. These priorities are endorsed by experts in child health and development, and their implementation would help us begin to reclaim our reputation as a safe haven for those seeking protection, especially children.
Over the past four years, the administration has implemented numerous policies, rules, and regulations that ignore the best interests of migrant children. Family separation wasn’t the first or last such policy, and was only one of many which inflicted serious, long-term harm on vulnerable kids. Nearly ten thousand children have been “expelled” from the border under an obscure statute the Trump administration dusted off called “Title 42”, to close the border to kids seeking safety in violation of longstanding law. Children were immediately turned away and sent back to their home countries without asking them a single question about who they are, why they fled, or who they would return to. On November 18th, a federal court in D.C. enjoined this practice and issued a nationwide injunction.
Likewise, other policies are equally effective in blocking children from accessing the courts or agencies where they might find safety. The so-called “migration protection protocols” is an ironically-named policy that leaves children and their families trapped in dangerous conditions at our southern border. And the shameless barrage of regulations that have chipped away at our asylum system, ignoring or invalidating legal norms, have left few options for children who are escaping violence. The U.S. commitment to resettle refugees fleeing conflict was once the hallmark of our national values. But that system has been decimated by an administration that not only set the lowest number of refugees in history but did so in violation of law.
Children should never be rushed through deportation (or removal) proceedings.
In addition to denying children the opportunity to seek safety, the current administration has made it more difficult for children to secure legal relief once they are in the country. Children should never be rushed through deportation (or removal) proceedings. But the Trump administration’s use of “rocket dockets” to rush through cases, completion quotas for judges, video-teleconferences where kids see a judge on a tv screen, and ICE’s relentless pursuit of kids while they wait for a decision on their case have all but destroyed a child’s chance at due process. Decision-making should be timely, but not patently unfair. Once admitted to the United States, children need help navigating our complex legal system. They need lawyers and child advocates who can help them make claims for protection and ensure that no child is ever returned to danger.
Children who arrive at our borders alone should be placed in small, community-based settings that provide the support they need and facilitate their prompt release to their families.
The new administration has an opportunity to end this country’s obsession with denying protection—and with the detention of children and families. Detention is inherently inappropriate for children, whether housed alone in shelters or with their parents in Family Residential Centers, another euphemistically named institution. Even short periods of detention can traumatize children and cause long lasting mental health problems. Rather than jailing families in prison-like complexes rife with abuses – many of which generate profits for private companies – the new administration should rely on family case management programs run by non-profit organizations which are proven to work. These programs are a fraction of the cost of detention beds, preserve family unity and ensure that people make their court dates. Children who arrive at our borders alone should be placed in small, community-based settings that provide the support they need and facilitate their prompt release to their families.
The past few years have crystalized the many ways in which our immigration system harms children. The new administration has the power to change this and to be a champion for children, making sure that we as a nation treat immigrant children as children who deserve to be welcomed and cared for.
Mary Miller Flowers is the Senior Policy Analyst for Child Protection for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an organization that defends the best interests of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children facing deportation.
Photo credit: Dustin Mennie