Reforming Immigration Enforcement to Better Protect Children and Families

Each year, tens of thousands of people enter the United States seeking refuge from poverty, war, political or religious persecution, or human rights abuses. Among the most vulnerable of these immigrants are children who enter the country without a parent.  

In 2007, more than 8,000 unaccompanied children were held in U.S. custody, according to the Women’s Refuge Commission.

The United States has long made it a priority of immigration policy to reunite families.  The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended earlier policies that prioritized immigrants from Europe and replaced them with a system that prioritized family immigration.

However, current immigration enforcement has had devastating effects on families.  Once detained, children are held in border patrol stations for weeks, often without blankets, showers or adequate nutrition. Furthermore, children are often forced to navigate through the immigration system alone, with about 50 percent appearing in court without an attorney.

In addition, U.S. born children across the country are being separated from their immigrant parents and placed in foster care. Many detained parents have seen their parental rights terminated because of the inability to participate in family court proceedings. Between 1998 and 2007, about 108,434 undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children were deported.

Congress is currently considering legislation to fix the broken immigration system and return its focus to family reunification.  The Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D. Calif., would implement critically needed reforms to immigration enforcement procedures that will ensure that children are not separated from their families. The act is also designed to promote alternatives to detention in the immigration system (like parole or bond) for all vulnerable immigrants going through enforcement proceedings, including parents, caregivers, families, children, asylum seekers and pregnant and nursing women.