Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights Releases Report: Reimagining the Immigration System for Children


The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights has released Reimagining Children’s Immigration Proceedings: A Roadmap for an Entirely New System Centered around Children. With the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the report sets out to reimagine the ways in which the federal government welcomes children at the border and adjudicates their requests to remain permanently in the United States.

“In the absence of a ‘best interests’ mandate for all immigrant children, immigration authorities have been able to separate children from parents, and even turn children away at the border without asking a single question about where they will go or whether they will be safe,” said Young Center Executive Director Maria Woltjen. “It is not enough to reform a broken system. We must imagine and invest in an entirely new system that sees immigrant children as children.”

Reimagining is based in part on a symposium in which the Young Center brought together experts in child welfare, juvenile justice, child development, immigration law, and international migration. The goal was to learn lessons from efforts to develop and reform other systems where children’s rights are at stake, and propose a model tailored to children’s needs, capacities, and experiences. 

With bold recommendations that include extending childhood to the age of 21, ending adversarial court hearings for all children, and prohibiting the deportation of children until the government has proved they will be safe, the Reimagining report focuses both on process and substantive protections. Other recommendations include: ending the separation of children from trusted adult caregivers such as grandparents, adult siblings, aunts and uncles; providing attorneys to all children, at government expense if needed; creating a dedicated corps of government judges and attorneys assigned to children’s cases; commencing immigration proceedings only after children are living with family or placed in a family-like setting; and requiring that decisions be made in a reasonable timeframe.

Seven guiding principles are identifed in the report. These principles represent a radical change in the policies and practices embedded in the existing adjudicatory process for children.

1: A Child’s Best Interests Is a Primary Consideration in Every Decision
In every decision made about a child, from the moment the child is identified or apprehended by immigration officials until a final decision is made, the child’s best interests shall be a primary consideration. This does not preclude other considerations, such as the child’s stated interests, a parent’s stated interests, concerns for the safety of others or national security. But consideration of the individual child’s best interests—which includes consideration of the child’s stated interests—must inform every decision, with decisionmakers held accountable for meeting this obligation.

Principle 2: Safety and Family First
When any child is identified by immigration authorities (at the border or internally) the sole focus shall be finding a safe placement with family, minimizing any time spent in institutional, government care. Children apprehended with parents or other family members—whether at the border or internally—shall not be separated for purposes of immigration enforcement absent a determination that the parent or family member poses an imminent danger to the child’s safety, a determination that would be subject to prompt review by a judge with expertise in family law. The initiation of an immigration case to determine whether the child will remain in the United States or return to home country will begin only after the child’s safe reunification with family or placement in a family- or community-based setting such as foster care.

Principle 3: A Fundamentally Fair Process
After safe placement in the community, children who wish to remain in the United States will participate in a holistic process of decision making which places the child at the center. Children will not be subject to repeated inquiry about past traumatic events and there will be timely but not rushed decision-making. All children will be represented by counsel and vulnerable children will be appointed a child advocate to help identify the child’s best interests.

Principle 4: Specialization
Every participant and decisionmaker in a child’s case will have specialized training in child development and the impact of trauma on children, as well as training and experience working with children from different cultural backgrounds.

Principle 5: No Repatriation to Unsafe Situations
A child may fail to prove eligibility to remain in the United States. However, before repatriation, the government must demonstrate to an independent adjudicator that the child will be safe upon return. If a child will not be safe upon return, the child will be permitted to remain in the United States until adulthood.

Principle 6: Childhood Continues to Age 21
There is consensus in the scientific community that children continue to develop and mature well into their 20s. An increasing number of legal systems have recognized this principle, extending the age of childhood or youth to 21. All immigrant youth will be recognized as children and will be able to avail themselves of child-specific protections until they reach the age of 21.

Principle 7: All Children Share the Same Rights and Protections
All children placed in immigration proceedings, whether arriving at the border or encountered within the United States after being here for any period of time, hold the same rights. These include the rights to express their own wishes, to safety, to liberty, to be protected from family separation, to develop, to maintain their identity, to have their best interests considered in all decisions, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have a fair opportunity to seek protection from harm.

“The past few years have crystalized the many ways in which our immigration system harms children. Reimagining presents a strong argument in favor of an overhaul of immigration proceedings for all migrant children, and shows how this systemic change is possible,” said Jennifer Nagda of the Young Center. “We hope this report will be the first step in a collaborative process with other advocates, policy-makers, Members of Congress, and the federal government to reimagine how we welcome and evaluate children’s protection claims and begin the work of implementation.”

On Wednesday, October 28, at 7:00pm ET/4:00pm PT, the Young Center will host an online conversation about the Reimagining report and initiative. Registration for the event, which will feature Woltjen, Nagda, Young Center Child Advocate Program Director Gladis Molina Alt, and Advocate for Youth Elvis Garcia Callejas, is available here.

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is a non-profit organization that protects and advances the rights and best interests of immigrant children and advocates for an immigration system that treats children as children first. For press inquiries, please contact Noorjahan Akbar at or 202-725-7184.


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