Often I get asked by friends and family what I mean when I say I advocate for policy reform on behalf of unaccompanied migrant children. Usually I explain that I monitor immigration detention programs for kids and use my findings to promote better laws and procedures that reflect the children’s best interests. My friends and family are usually surprised by two things: 1) that we detain these children at all and 2) that every year more than 10,000 children and youth make the risky journey to the U.S. alone. When they ask me why these children are coming on their own, I always share the story of Jesus.*

Jesus is a young Honduran teen I met while visiting what’s called a staff-secure detention facility, which is like a juvenile jail. Jesus had been in two different immigration detention facilities and detained for over five months. When we spoke to him, he said all he wanted was for us to help him write a letter to the judge. He told us that he just needed to ask the judge for some money so that he could buy his homeless mother and eight siblings a house back in Honduras. Jesus’ story exemplifies the desperate state these children are in. They come fleeing physical or sexual abuse or violence waged by gangs and drug cartels, to seek refuge and a better life in America. Instead, they are placed in immigrant detention facilities and denied their basic human rights. I believe that as Americans we should treat these children with respect. They, too, hold dear the pursuit of happiness and liberty.
Respect for these rights underpins the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work to find alternatives to immigration detention. Yesterday, we joined the International Detention Coalition (IDC) in launching a campaign to end the detention of immigrant children. This global campaign is guided by three principles:
  1. Undocumented child migrants are, first and foremost, children.
  2. The best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in any action taken in relation to the child.
  3. The liberty of the child is a fundamental human right.
Early this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the UN Human Rights Council, calling on member states, “to explore effective alternatives to immigration detention, particularly for children and other vulnerable groups of migrants.”
The Women’s Refugee Commission has advocated for alternatives to detention of migrant children for over a decade. We have seen some important reforms in the United States—such as the transfer of unaccompanied children to the care and custody of child welfare experts in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But a lot more needs to happen. The United States can and should be a leader in human rights standards for children in immigration custody.
We, as Americans, have failed to fully implement alternatives to detention for children. The IDC’s new report Captured Childhood outlines a model for reform and alternatives that can be implemented to ensure the best interests of the child are at the forefront.
In 2008, President Bush signed into law the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which sought to protect child migrants who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. The United States recognized that the best interests of the child standard should apply to unaccompanied children in custody. We should be following this standard and a child welfare model that incorporates the voice of the child. Instead, we have been borrowing outdated models from the juvenile justice system.
Even within the juvenile justice system, the United States has long recognized the importance of alternatives to detention for children. This is why in the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Protection Act, Congress determined that community-based programs should be utilized as alternatives to detention.  Many alternative models have been developed in the juvenile justice community for runaways and juvenile delinquents that can readily be adapted for children in immigration detention. These models include short-term, nonconfinement shelters and foster care. Yet, according to the Vera Institute of Justice’s recent report The Flow of Unaccompanied Children Through the Immigration System, only 11 percent of unaccompanied children in immigration custody are in foster care. A large majority, 80 percent, are in locked shelters with restricted movement and very little public access.
Approximately 8 percent of unaccompanied migrant children are in secure and staff-secure facilities. Many of these children have served their time and yet are put into secure facilities until a decision is reached on their immigration cases. HHS is still behind a state-wide movement that embraces alternatives to detention for youth who are at risk or those with juvenile justice histories. HHS can look to several U.S. models like Multi-Systemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy in developing models as alternatives to locking up children.
The United States is also far behind many other developed countries that provide legal representation to unaccompanied migrant children as a human right. While HHS has done much to improve attorney organizations’ access to these children, Congress has failed to provide funds for their legal representation—forcing many to represent themselves in immigration cases. This is a time-consuming process for immigration judges and further clogs the already backed-up immigration courts.
Children who do have lawyers should also be given greater opportunities to be a part of the process—so that their voices may be heard when decisions are made that affect them. This approach not only coincides with the best interest of child standard, but also with human rights standards such as theConvention on the Rights of the Child.
We need to do not only what is practical, but what is right. It is time that we, as Americans, finally put an end to the detention of immigrant children and instead ensure we are guided by the best interests of all children.
Join the campaign and hear children speak up.
*Jesus’ real name has been changed to protect his identity.
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