Since 1998, the Women's Commission has worked to expand protections for unaccompanied alien children. A critical component of these efforts has been securing passage of several provisions included in this legislation.
"Unaccompanied alien children are some of the most invisible migrants," said Michelle Brané, Director of the Detention and Asylum Program. "They are in need of special protections that befit their particular vulnerabilities and age."
In 2003, custody of these children transferred from the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) following advocacy by the Women's Commission and other organizations. While this transfer was a good beginning, many children in custody are still unnecessarily housed in overly secure settings and an estimated 70 percent must represent themselves in court proceedings without the assistance of counsel or an advocate. Still other children, including some who may be victims of trafficking or fear persecution if returned to their country of origin, are repatriated through a process that currently involves little screening and fewer safeguards.
If signed by the President, the TVPRA will lead to numerous improvements in the treatment of these vulnerable children, including requiring screening of all children apprehended at the border to determine whether they may be victims of trafficking or fear persecution; creating a pilot repatriation program to ensure that children are returned to their country of origin safely; and allowing them to apply for asylum in a non-adversarial system. The legislation also calls for placement of children in immigration proceedings in the least secure setting that is in their best interest; limits the use of secure (often criminal) facilities; facilitates the timely provision of benefits to children who may be victims of trafficking; and calls on ORR to ensure "to the greatest extent possible" that children in proceedings have legal representation.
"We continue to believe that all unaccompanied alien children in immigration proceedings should be guaranteed counsel, and that these children should be assisted throughout the process by an independent child advocate or guardian ad litem," said Brané.
These recommendations, and others, will be detailed in the Women's Commission's forthcoming report Halfway Home, which documents the situation facing children five years after the transfer of custody to ORR and which will be released in January 2009. In the meantime, the Commission welcomes the TVPRA as a long overdue first step in expanding protections for vulnerable children, and look forward to working with the 111th Congress and the new administration to further enhance protections for vulnerable migrants.