Each year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children make dangerous journeys around the globe on their own to arrive at the southern border of the United States, seeking safety. 

Other children arrive with their families and are separated from them, in violation of child welfare principles upheld by the American Academy of Pediatrics. These children range from infants and toddlers to teenagers at risk of aging out into adult ICE detention. They come from all over the globe — Central America, Mexico, Venezuela, China, India, Romania, Ghana, and Afghanistan.

Children flee their home countries for complicated reasons, including but not limited to gang and cartel violence, gender-based violence, and desperate poverty and food scarcity. Upon arrival at the U.S. southern border and encountering Customs and Border Protection officials, each child is taken into custody by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, at which point they will be placed in government facilities for weeks, months, or even years, until they can be released to a family sponsor or residential housing program.

Each child will also be placed in deportation proceedings. They’ll be required to go before an immigration judge, to face a government attorney in a formal courtroom. But many, if not most, won’t have an attorney to speak on their behalf. They will be treated like adults, unlike in our state courts where children’s cases are handled separately and where there is a standard called best interests of the child. 

In our state courts, when placing a child, a judge will consider whether the child will be safe, whether the child will be separated from family against their wishes, whether this is what the child wants. There is no best interests standard in immigration law to require that judges consider what's best for the child before them, even though the decisions can have life or death consequences.

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights provides independent bilingual Child Advocates to unaccompanied and separated immigrant and asylum-seeking children facing deportation proceedings. Our staff and volunteers are appointed to the most vulnerable children in federal custody, including pregnant and parenting teens, children who have experienced or witnessed violence, LGBTQIA children, those without family in the United States or their home country, and children who have been trafficked. 

Child Advocates visit with the children weekly in order to develop rapport and learn their stories, and then help ensure their voices are heard and their rights are respected by decision makers such as immigrant court judges, asylum officials, shelter staff, attorneys, and ICE officers. Our policy team works to protect legal safeguards for children and reimagine the immigration system so that children in immigration proceedings are recognized as children, and their best interests are made a part of the decision-making process. Among ensuring other protections for children, a reimagined immigration system would require the government to prove that a child would be safe if repatriated and would never deport a child to danger, but would instead connect children to support services both while in government custody and post-release in the community as they pursue their immigration or asylum cases.

Rather than taking a punitive approach, it is time to seize the opportunity to welcome children seeking safety at our borders with dignity. The federal government must apply the necessary resources to welcome unaccompanied children as the law requires, reunite them with their families, and provide them with lawyers and independent Child Advocates for their immigration and asylum cases.

Some ways to get involved: