Immigration Law

Protection of Children Act would harm immigrant children, ABA tells House Judiciary Committee

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Child's hands clenched on fence.


The recently proposed Protection of Children Act of 2017 would place some children in harm’s way, the ABA argued Wednesday in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill, H.R. 495, is sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican. It pertains to unaccompanied immigrant minors, and would change the way those children are processed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. The ABA opposes the bill.

“Under H.R. 495, unaccompanied children would be subject to an expedited screening process performed by Border Patrol officers,” writes Thomas Susman, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, in the letter (PDF). “Law enforcement agents are not equipped with training and child-welfare expertise to screen a child for specific signs of trafficking, fear of return or persecution. This assessment should be made by a trained child welfare specialist, and if one is not available, the child’s lawyer.”

Ensuring adequate legal protections for unaccompanied immigrant minors has long been a goal for the ABA. While H.R. 495 says children in the custody of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services “shall have access to legal counsel at no cost to the government,” the ABA letter says this “would weaken existing language intended to facilitate access to counsel for unaccompanied children.”

Even under the existing, more robust regulations, only 50 percent of children currently receive legal representation during their immigration proceedings, the ABA letter states. A provision in the bill ordering that all children appear before an immigration judge within 14 days would make obtaining legal counsel before a hearing even more difficult. “Any proposals to weaken the already insufficient measures in place to assist children in obtaining counsel and to expedite the adjudication process should be rejected,” Susman writes in the letter.

The proposed legislation would also increase the time children could be held by Customs and Border Protection to 30 days. “The current 72-hour limit ensures that unaccompanied children are quickly moved to an appropriate placement rather than remain for lengthy periods of time at temporary CBP holding centers ill-equipped for the proper treatment and handling of children,” Susman notes.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are often placed with family members already in the United States while the child goes through immigration procedures. Not directly mentioned in the letter is a provision in H.R. 495 which gives the Department of Homeland Security the responsibility to investigate the immigration status of any adult with whom the child is placed. The bill calls for Homeland Security to “initiate removal proceedings if that individual is unlawfully present in the United States.”

“[As] a country that rightly prioritizes the welfare of children, in our legal system and otherwise, we should not significantly diminish protections in place to ensure the appropriate treatment and adjudication of unaccompanied children,” the letter to the House Judiciary Committee concludes. “We strongly urge you to oppose H.R. 495 and any similar legislation.”

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