Merkley, Kamlager-Dove Introduce Legislation to Protect Children in Government Custody

Bicameral bill strengthens standards to ensure safety and well-being of migrant children prioritized

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA-37) today led colleagues in the introduction of the Children’s Safe Welcome Act of 2024. The bicameral Children’s Safe Welcome Act embeds child welfare best practices into every stage of our immigration system involving both unaccompanied and accompanied children who seek asylum in the U.S.

In addition to Merkley and Kamlager-Dove, this legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Representatives Nanette Barragán (D-CA-44), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr. (D-GA-04), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC-AL), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13), Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-FL-20), Sara Jacobs (D-CA-51), and James P. McGovern (D-MA-02).

“The family separation policy continues to rank among the most morally abhorrent decisions ever made by any American presidential administration. Using children to achieve a deterrent policy outcome has been disastrous for migrant families and children. We must learn from these mistakes and recognize that protecting children in the U.S.’s care should always come first,” said Merkley. “Our bill will codify child welfare protections, prohibit family separations, and guarantee legal representation for children, all of which will allow migrant children to be held in safe and humane conditions while their asylum claims are processed. I challenge Congress to act with moral clarity based on children’s best interests by swiftly passing this legislation.”

“As the Trump Administration’s inhumane family separation policy starkly illustrated, our immigration system is not designed to protect children’s well-being or guarantee child safety,” said Kamlager-Dove. “The disturbing lack of protections for children is a massive policy failure and moral disgrace that we cannot leave unaddressed. I am proud to partner with my Senate colleagues to introduce the Children’s Safe Welcome Act, comprehensive legislation that ensures every step of the immigration process is structured around child welfare principles. Immigrant children disproportionately suffer the consequences of our broken immigration system, and it’s time we ensure they receive the care and attention they deserve.”

A new report from a federally-appointed monitor highlights the ongoing need for comprehensive child welfare protections to be enacted in law and provide better care for migrant children. For example, children continue to be held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) separately from their parents, without clear instructions on how to request visitation. This troubling report also revealed that many children are routinely held in CBP detention for more than 72 hours.

Historically, the United States’ immigration system primarily focused on adults, overlooking the unique needs of children who also seek refuge at our borders. The Children’s Safe Welcome Act commits to making substantial reforms to our immigration system by prioritizing the well-being of children, significantly reduce their suffering and trauma, and preventing children fleeing in search of a better life from being used as political pawns. The bill will: 

  1. Codify minimum child welfare protections such as health and safety standards, state licensing requirements, and the best interests of the child standard.
  2. Mandate child protection professionals at children’s first point of contact with the federal immigration system.
  3. Increase minimum health and safety standards for children and families in Customs and Border Protection facilities.
  4. Prohibit family separations, with extremely narrow exceptions only in cases where it is critical to protect the safety of the child.
  5. Prohibit the use of family detention facilities, without exception. 
  6. Ensure all children are placed in a non-adversarial setting for their asylum case processing. 
  7. 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. 
  8. Phase out large congregate care facilities and prioritize family-based placements for unaccompanied children.
  9. Require children to be placed in the least restrictive environment and limit the placement of children in harmful restrictive facilities.
  10. Prioritize the swift release of unaccompanied children with disabilities and access to services in the community. 
  11. Limit the use of influx facilities and prohibit the placement of unaccompanied children in influx facilities for more than 20 days.
  12. Guarantee legal representation for unaccompanied children at every stage of removal proceedings. 
  13. Prohibit information sharing about unaccompanied children, with narrow exceptions. 
  14. Replace the outdated and offensive word “alien” with “noncitizen” in federal statute.
  15. Establish an Ombudsperson to monitor and oversee compliance with this Act. 
  16. 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 The National Center for Youth Law, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, Save the Children, Prevention Institute, Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, National Center for Youth Law, ZERO TO THREE, Women’s Refugee Commission, Center for the Human Rights of Children – Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Disability Rights Florida, Kids in Need of Defense, Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Association of Counsel for Children, First Focus Campaign for Children, Church World Service, Center for Law and Social Policy, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Children’s Defense Fund, and Mental Health Advocacy Services.

The government routinely fails children who are seeking protection at our border, and it must do better.  For years, our team has listened to children in detention centers all over the country share heartbreaking stories of their experience in custody. It is clear we need stronger protections, and the Children’s Safe Welcome Act represents a critical step in the right direction,” said Neha Desai, Senior Director, Immigration, National Center for Youth Law.

“As child advocates, we bear witness every day to children’s experiences in federal detention, their fight to reunify with family, and their need for stability while they wait for the government to hear their requests for protection and permanency,” said Mary Miller Flowers, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “At its core, the Children’s Safe Welcome Act is a recognition that all children deserve a safe journey to adulthood, bolstered by the support and care of loving family and community. This bill shifts us one step closer to that vision and we are ready to fight to make it a reality.”

Bill text can be found here.