WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) today introduced new legislation to provide a comprehensive framework to reform the federal government’s care and custody of unaccompanied noncitizen children (UC).  The Protecting Unaccompanied Children Act would address gaps in our system by improving existing safeguards for the release of UC from government custody, increasing UCs’ access to social services and legal protections, and creating new safeguards and services for children’s safety. 

The introduction of the bill coincides with a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children, Part II.”  The hearing builds on the committee’s hearing on this issue in June, which featured testimony from child welfare and labor experts.

“Unaccompanied children fleeing violence are among the most vulnerable people seeking refuge in the United States.  Our current laws on the books require that these children are screened for human trafficking, housed in child-appropriate settings, and reunified with family in the United States while they await their immigration proceedings,” said Durbin.  “But the tragedy is that these children are still at risk.  Congress has an obligation to ensure the health and safety of these kids—we must do better to protect them.”

“We have a special duty to protect the unaccompanied children in our immigration system from exploitation and abuse while they seek legal refuge in our country,” said Merkley.  “The Protecting Unaccompanied Children Act would address dangerous gaps in our current system and help better protect children in any kind of government custody.”

“We need to make sure vulnerable immigrant children aren’t exploited, harmed, or forced to work in unsafe conditions,” said Cortez Masto.  “My commonsense legislation will help give these children fleeing violence and trauma the safety they deserve.”

“As the only immigrant currently serving in the U.S. Senate, I am proud to join in introducing this legislation to establish comprehensive policies to protect the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children while they navigate our immigration system,” said Hirono. “I am especially pleased that this legislation includes provisions of my bill to provide counsel for unaccompanied minors, a critical support for a uniquely vulnerable population in our immigration system.”

“How we treat and care for vulnerable, unaccompanied children who flee to our nation seeking refuge defines who we are.  Right now, there are far too many unaccompanied minors who have fallen through the cracks of our system – many of whom end up being horrifically exploited by unscrupulous companies and contractors for their labor.  That is exactly why this legislation is so essential right now,” said Menendez.  “This common-sense bill would push forward necessary reforms to improve access to social services and legal protections for unaccompanied children, as well as create new safeguards to ensure their safety and well-being.  I am proud that core provisions of my POWER Act – legislation to expand labor protections for unaccompanied children and other immigrant workers – is included in this package.  Congress must work to swiftly pass these reforms and I look forward to working with my colleagues to accomplish this goal.”

UC arrive in the United States without immigration status and without a parent or guardian to care for them.  Congress passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, and President George W. Bush signed into law, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HSA) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), legislation that improved protections for these children.  These laws require screening such children for human trafficking, housing children in appropriate settings in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and family reunification whenever possible.

Years after enactment of the HSA and TVPRA, new challenges have arisen requiring reforms to our system for caring for unaccompanied children. The number of UCs arriving at our southern border has greatly increased. Many children were separated from their parents by the Trump Administration “Zero Tolerance” policy, and continue to require assistance.  Some states refuse to license HHS facilities, preventing children and staff in such facilities from reporting safety violations.  In light of increased child labor violations across the country, there has also been a call to improve vetting of sponsors and bolster penalties for child labor violations.  At the same time, our immigration system has grown more complex, making it difficult for UCs to get the assistance they need.

Specifically, the Protecting Unaccompanied Children Act would:

  • Improve Sponsor Vetting and Placement.  This bill would codify certain background checks, expand home studies to better identify safety concerns prior to release to a sponsor, and increase post-release services to ensure children’s ongoing safety and stability. The bill contains several prohibitions on information-sharing for immigration enforcement purposes to ensure child and family privacy.
  • Help Children Navigate our Legal System.  This bill would provide legal representation for all unaccompanied children. It would also lift numerical limitations for abused, abandoned, or neglected children granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and allow those and children granted “U” visas (victims of serious crimes who collaborate with law enforcement) access to Medicaid.
  • Protect Exploited Children.  This bill would also improve immigration protections for those who report child labor violations, including by lifting the annual cap for “U” visas.
  • Protect Children in HHS Custody.  This bill would create an HHS Office of the Ombudsperson for Immigrant Children in Federal Custody to allow children to report abuses in custody. It would also ensure that whistleblower reports are investigated and codify background checks for staff who interact with children. It would also establish state-level coordinators to help ensure UCs receive appropriate services and support from states.
  • Remedy Past Abuses.  This bill would make families separated under Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy eligible for additional public assistance, allowing such families to get the care and support they need to recover from the trauma of separation.

The legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Laphonza Butler (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and endorsed by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA).

A section-by-section is available here.  Bill text is available here.