WASHINGTON (February 28, 2002) -- The Immigration and Naturalization Service is ill suited to care for the children who arrive in the United States without adult family members, and congressional action is necessary to ensure that the children's best interests are given priority, according to the director of children's services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services.
"Unaccompanied alien children should be treated under the same standards and be afforded the same child welfare protections that are available to other children in the United States," Julianne Duncan said. "Such standards were developed to protect children as vulnerable human beings; they should not discriminate based upon legal status or national origin, but they currently do."
Duncan, Director of MRS's Office of Children's Services, testified today before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration in support of The Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act (S. 121), sponsored in the Senate by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). She testified on behalf of both MRS and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Specifically, Duncan supported provisions in S. 121 that promote: alternatives to detention for unaccompanied alien children; expanded use of foster care for these children; the need for court-appointed guardians to make recommendations about what is in their best interests; and the urgent need for Congress to legislate changes in the care and custody of unaccompanied alien children rather than depending on an administrative restructuring within the INS.
In highlighting support for the creation of a separate Office of Children's Services outside of the INS, Duncan was critical of the conflict of interest inherent in the INS being responsible for apprehending and detaining children on the one hand, and caring for their physical, emotional, and developmental needs on the other.
"Currently, the Detention and Removal branch [of the INS] handles the placement of unaccompanied minors, a direct conflict of interest which sometimes pits a child's best interest against the INS' role as jailer and deporter," she said. "The INS does not possess the child welfare expertise critical to the care of vulnerable children."
Under current practice, she said, unaccompanied minors are often placed in juvenile detention facilities, sometimes in the same cell with violent offenders, and are "regularly" transferred from one facility to another without notice to their families or attorneys. For vulnerable children who may have fled poverty, abusive families, military conscription or been subjected to prostitution or child trafficking, such treatment is unacceptable, she said.
Alternatives to detention -- identifying and locating family members in the United States or foster care -- must be used more often, according to Duncan. The Feinstein bill promotes family reunification or other appropriate placements, such as foster-care, for children as well as clear guidelines for the standards of care for children, including the provision of education, recreation, and health care.
These same children, Duncan said, are given little information or assistance regarding the complex legal issues affecting their situations.
According to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) and the Women's Commission on Refugee Women and Children, less than 11 percent of INS detainees receive legal representation. Child detainees receive even less assistance.
"Without appropriate legal assistance and representation, children with valid asylum claims are less likely to obtain asylum and more likely to be sent back to their countries of origin and possible persecution," Duncan said.
The legislation under consideration would allow for greater access to legal representation for the children.
"Approximately five-thousand unaccompanied alien children are found in our nation each year and are placed in the custody of the federal government," Duncan said. "They are not a threat to our society and only seek our protection. As a leader in human rights around the world, our treatment of unaccompanied alien minors is shameful and undercuts our ability to defend the rights of others, especially children, around the world."
MRS is the resettlement agency of the U.S. Catholic bishops and provides foster-care, family reunification, and other child welfare services to unaccompanied minors who enter the United States. During calendar year 2000, MRS assisted a number of unaccompanied alien minors obtain foster-care families and reunify with immediate or extended family members. MRS has also resettled 250 unaccompanied refugee minors in the United States during the past year. Together, MRS and LIRS have provided child welfare services to more than 12,000 unaccompanied children over the last 25 years.