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Jayapal Leads Lawmakers in Urging Biden Admin to Continue Strengthening Protections of Unaccompanied Children

Letter calls for quickly and safely processing unaccompanied children to get them reunited with their families, prioritizing the quality of conditions for children who remain within facilities and ensuring no child is held at an influx facility for more than 20 days, establishing a right to counsel for unaccompanied children, and taking up long-overdue reforms to eliminate any future need for influx facilities

WASHINGTON — U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) led more than 65 lawmakers today in urging the Biden Administration to continue strengthening protections of unaccompanied children and rapidly make key investments in reforms of the border reception and shelter system to ensure children are cared for appropriately, have their rights upheld, and are quickly reunited with family. Endorsed by dozens of local and national groups, the lawmakers’ letter also calls on leaders within DHS and HHS to prioritize long-overdue systemic reforms with a goal of eliminating any future need for influx facilities. 

The letter — written to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, ORR Director Cindy Huang, and CBP Senior Official Troy Miller — calls for ensuring that any influx facilities remain open for the briefest duration possible, observing stringent safeguards to guarantee children’s safety, focusing on quality conditions in facilities, providing appropriate care and services in addition to a right to counsel, and safely expediting children’s release to get them reunited with families or sponsors. 

“We appreciate the challenges of the current situation you have been put in by the cruelty of the previous Administration, the round-the-clock attention you are giving to this critically important situation, the changes that you have already undertaken to turn the tide, and your commitment to ensuring protections for unaccompanied children that uphold our nation’s laws and values,” wrote the lawmakers. “As you consider the many necessary changes that must be made to rebuild our nation’s system to welcome unaccompanied children, these recommendations would help ensure the safety, well-being, and access to protection of vulnerable children while ending reliance on influx facilities once and for all. We stand ready to work with you in implementing these and other recommendations.”

The lawmakers urged the Biden Administration to quickly and safely process unaccompanied children to get kids out of shelters and reunited with their families. The letter calls for no child to be held at an influx facility for more than 20 days, and if a child cannot be reunified in that time, they should be transferred to a standard shelter or foster care program. The letter also says that children who are sent to influx facilities should be screened prior to arrival to ensure they have a likely sponsor and do not have vulnerabilities prior to arriving. Additionally, facilities should ensure that children with siblings or other relatives in ORR custody are not separated. Importantly, all unaccompanied children should have access to in-person visitation or, as restricted by public health needs, visitation via video or telephone.

The lawmakers also called on the Biden Administration to prioritize the quality of conditions for children who remain within facilities. From their first day of operation, all facilities must be guided by the standards set forth in Exhibit 1 of the Flores Agreement and move towards compliance. The letter also calls for the size of facilities to be limited to the greatest extent possible to minimize the institutional setting and maximize staff to child ratios. Related to this, facilities must ensurean appropriate number of clinicians and pediatric health specialists including pediatricians, pediatric-focused advanced practice registered nurses, and mental health professionals. Additionally, each staff member who has contact with children should complete a background check. To ensure each of these guidelines is followed, the lawmakers are urging the HHS Office of Inspector General to conduct random visits of influx facilities.

Additionally, the lawmakers are urging the Biden Administration to establish a right to counsel to ensure all unaccompanied children have access to legal service as they navigate the legal process. This includes ensuring that legal counsel is able to conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations, interview children, conduct legal assessments, and establish contact with representation in the community where the child will be released. The letter also calls for children to be guaranteed legal counsel in all future immigration court proceedings. 

Finally, the lawmakers called on the Biden Administration to take up long-overdue systemic reforms of the border reception and shelter system for unaccompanied children. If adopted, these reforms would eliminate any need for influx facilities in the future. Long-term fixes include fully utilizing existing transitional foster care (TFC) beds and long-term foster care (LTFC) beds while expanding available TFC, LTFC, and small-scale shelter capacity. Another recommendation is fully adopting co-location of HHS personnel at CBP facilities to initiate the release of children arriving with trusted caregivers at the border. The lawmakers also call for an increase in the number of available licensed beds in shelter and foster care placements, and the implementation of intensive case management. Similarly, the lawmakers want HHS to establish an Office of the Ombudsperson to act as an advocate, subject-matter expert, and independent authority responsible for ensuring that the rights of immigrant children are protected while in custody.

The letter is signed by U.S. Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Jake Auchincloss, Karen Bass, Donald S. Beyer Jr., Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Jamaal Bowman, Ed.D., Cori Bush, Tony Cárdenas, André Carson, Joaquin Castro, Judy Chu, David N. Cicilline, Katherine Clark, Yvette D. Clarke, Gerald E. Connolly, Jim Cooper, Jason Crow, Danny K. Davis, Diana DeGette, Mark DeSaulnier, Veronica Escobar, Adriano Espaillat, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, Sylvia R. Garcia, Jimmy Gomez, Jahana Hayes, Sara Jacobs, Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Mondaire Jones, Raúl M. Grijalva, Ro Khanna, Rick Larsen, Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee, Andy Levin, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Carolyn B. Maloney, Betty McCollum, James P. McGovern, Gregory Meeks, Grace Meng, Gwen Moore, Grace F. Napolitano, Joe Neguse, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Jimmy Panetta, Chellie Pingree, Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley, Linda T. Sánchez, Mary Gay Scanlon, Jan Schakowsky, Albio Sires, Adam Smith, Mark Takano, Rashida Tlaib, Ritchie Torres, Lori Trahan, Juan Vargas, Nydia M. Velázquez, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Peter Welch, Nikema Williams, and Frederica S. Wilson.

The lawmakers’ letter is also endorsed by local, state, and national organizations including Amara, American Muslim Empowerment Network (AMEN), Americans for Immigrant Justice, Amnesty International USA, Border Kindness, Bridges Faith Initiative, Center for Children & Youth Justice, Center for Victims of Torture, Central American Resource Center – CARECEN SF, Childhaven, Children’s Home Society of Washington, Church Council of Greater Seattle, Church World Service, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, Community Passageways, Community Passageways, Council on American Islamic Relations, Washington Chapter (CAIR Washington), Disciples Refugee & Immigration Ministries, Don’t Separate Families, Faith Action Network, First Focus on Children, Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, Hope Border Institute, Indivisible Nation BK, International Refugee Assistance Project, Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice NW, Kids in Need of Defense, Legal Services for Children, LULAC, MAPS-AMEN (American Muslim Empowerment Network), National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, National Council of Jewish Women, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Partnership for New Americans, National Partnership for New Americans, NETWORK lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, OneAmerica, Oxfam America, Oxfam America, Physicians for Human Rights, Project Blueprint, Project Lifeline, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, Seattle Amistad School, Seattle Indivisible, Snohomish Immigration Advocacy, Southern Border Communities Coalition, SPLC Action Fund, Treehouse, UCSF Health and Human Rights Initiative, United We Dream Network, VECINA, Washington Community Alliance, Watson Immigration Law, Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center, Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center, Witness at the Border, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

The letter is available here.