Merkley, Bass, Gillibrand, Durbin Introduce Bicameral Bill to Protect Non-Citizen Children in Government Custody

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, Representative Karen Bass (D-CA-37), and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) teamed up to introduce the bicameral Children’s Safe Welcome Act. This bill establishes new standards to ensure that the safety and well-being of migrant children in government custody are prioritized. The Children’s Safe Welcome Act embeds child welfare best practices into every stage of our immigration system involving unaccompanied and accompanied noncitizen children who seek asylum in the U.S. 

“Every American should want all children to be treated with care, especially when we, through our government, are responsible for their well-being,” said Senator Merkley. “The previous administration pursued a deliberate strategy of inflicting trauma on children to deter people seeking asylum from coming to our borders. This was and still is shameful and wrong. But the good news is that we now have a detailed plan for an immigration system that serves the best interests of the children in our care. As President Biden and his administration continue rewriting their processes and procedures for children seeking asylum at the border, I urge them to use our legislation as a guiding compass to create an immigration system that is fair and gives all children the best chance to pursue their potential, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their asylum requests. We can and should be good enough to treat every child with dignity and respect.” 

“The separation of families at the border under the Trump administration was state-sanctioned child abuse,” said Representative Karen Bass. “Part of what allowed that administration to inflict trauma and terror was a lack of standards when it comes to the safety and well-being of migrant children in government custody. We have not forgotten the trauma. We have not forgotten the terror. This piece of legislation we are introducing today will help ensure that those horrors never happen again. I urge my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to join this fight and pass this bill.”

“Our immigration system should recognize the dignity and promise of children who come here seeking asylum and a better life,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “Not only will the Children’s Safe Welcome Act imbue our immigration system with compassion, humanity, fairness and safety, but it will also allow these children to live up to their potential. We must act to seize this opportunity to create a new immigration framework that strengthens protections for children and makes our communities stronger.”

“Our immigration system has failed to meet our legal and moral obligation to protect families and children entering the United States at the southern border. We must ensure that the youngest immigrants have access to adequate care and legal representation in addition to mandating that families cannot and will not be separated,” said Senator Durbin. “In joining my colleagues to introduce the Children’s Safe Welcome Act, we can have a serious conversation about how we prioritize children’s welfare in our country’s immigration laws.” 

Historically, the United States’ immigration system was designed only with adults in mind. However, over the past few decades, our nation has only made piecemeal changes to reflect the distinctive needs of children also seeking refuge at the border. In an effort to profoundly reduce suffering and trauma to children, our immigration system needs comprehensive reforms consistent with the best interests of children.  

Senator Merkley has been a long-time advocate fighting for decency, respect, and humane treatment for those seeking asylum at the borders—introducing the Immigrant’s Mental Health Act and the Freedom for Families Act 

In March, Senators Durbin and Merkley led a letter to the Biden Administration urging it to provide a just resolution for families separated under for the former administrations’ “Zero Tolerance” policy.  

Specifically, the Children’s Safe Welcome Act will: 

  • Codify minimum child welfare protections such as health and safety standards, state licensing requirements, and the best interests of the child standard.  
  • Mandate child protection professionals at children’s first point of contact with the federal immigration system.  
  • Increase minimum health and safety standards for children and families in Customs and Border Protection facilities.
  • Prohibit family separations, with extremely narrow exceptions only in cases where it is critical to protect the safety of the child.  
  • Prohibit the use of family detention facilities, without exception. 
  • Ensure all children are placed in a non-adversarial setting for their asylum case processing. 
  • Create a process for keeping families together by allowing unaccompanied children who arrive at the border in the care of grandparents, adult siblings, or aunts or uncles (non-parent/non-legal guardian family members) to stay together. 
  • Phase out large congregate care facilities and prioritizes family-based placements for unaccompanied children.  
  • Require children to be placed in the least restrictive environment and limits the placement of children in harmful restrictive facilities.  
  • Prioritize the swift release of unaccompanied children with disabilities and access to services in the community. 
  • Limit the use of influx facilities and prohibits the placement of unaccompanied children in influx facilities for more than 20 days.  
  • Guarantee legal representation for unaccompanied children at every stage of removal proceedings. 
  • Prohibit information sharing about unaccompanied children, with narrow exceptions. 
  • Replace the outdated and offensive word “alien” with “noncitizen” in federal statute.  
  • Establish an Ombudsperson to monitor and oversee compliance with this Act. 
  • Mandate access for members of Congress, accompanying staff, and credentialed press (without cameras) to visit federal immigration facilities. 

The Children’s Safe Welcome Act is supported by leading experts, advocates, and organizations representing noncitizen children in all stages of our immigration system, including in particular The National Center for Youth Law and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. 

“When we walk into facilities and see children held in unacceptable conditions, and then hear them recount the traumatic experiences they’ve had while in custody, it is painfully clear the protections we currently have for children in federal immigration custody are insufficient. They neither adequately ensure that children are in custody for the shortest possible amount of time, nor do they ensure that while in custody, the best interests of children are prioritized. We need stronger and more permanent protections. This is what the Children’s Safe Welcome Act offers us,” said Neha Desai, Senior Director, Immigration, National Center for Youth Law, and Flores counsel.

“Today’s introduction of the Children’s Safe Welcome Act is a monumental step forward in reimagining policies that lead with humanity, safety, and family unity. For years, the Young Center has helped to guide the development of this bill to ensure all children, regardless of their immigration status, are protected. Under policies like Title 42, children continue to be separated from their loved ones and are often placed in restrictive facilities that fail to provide the care they need and deserve. From prioritizing keeping families together to restricting the use of large-scale, unlicensed facilities for unaccompanied children, this bill is a critical opportunity for Congress to strengthen and boldly enact new protections that invest in and prioritize every child’s health and safety,” said Gladis Molina Alt, Executive Director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights 

“Save the Children strongly supports the Children’s Safe Welcome Act, which would re-envision and guarantee child welfare protections for migrant children seeking asylum and a better life in the U.S.,” said Christy Gleason, Vice President for Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children “This legislation would protect children’s best interests by strengthening and improving health and safety standards for children in U.S. immigration proceedings, which have been ignored for far too long. Children and families deserve to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect, especially while in the custody of the U.S. government. We applaud Senators Merkley, Gillibrand and Durbin, as well as Representative Bass for introducing this bill, and look forward to working with them to pass it into law.”

In addition to Senators Merkley, Gillibrand, Durbin, and Representative Bass, The Children’s Safe Welcome Act is cosponsored by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

The Children’s Safe Welcome Act is endorsed by 40 organizations including: Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, CAIR Coalition, Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola, University Chicago School of Law, Child Welfare League of America, CHILDREN AT RISK, Children’s Defense Fund, Children’s Rights, Church World Service, Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Florida, First Focus Campaign for Children, Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, Human Rights Center, School of Law, University of California Ber, Immigrant Health Equity and Legal Partnerships (ImmHELP) , Immigrant Legal Defense, International Refugee Assistance Project, Juvenile Law Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Legal Services for Children, Mental Health Advocacy Services, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Center for Youth Law, National Immigrant Justice Center, Our Children Oregon, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Prevention Institute, Public Counsel, RAICES, Save the Children, The Children’s Partnership, Tulane Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, UNICEF USA, Women’s Refugee Commission, and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

Final bill text can be found here.

A one page summary of the bill can be found here