ACLU Urges Passage of Bill Protecting Vulnerable Children

February 28, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Pointing to repeated reports of brutal detention practices, the American Civil Liberties Union today expressed strong support for a bill that would provide legal protections for foreign-born children who arrive unaccompanied in the United States.

“Many of these children have already been victimized in their home country,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “It is unconscionable that once here they end up being victimized again. Our immigration system must start taking better care of these children.”

The bill — called the “Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2002” and introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Bob Graham (D-FL) — would reform the way in which unaccompanied foreign-born children are treated by the country’s immigration system. The Feinstein-Graham bill was the subject of a Senate hearing today.

Each year, more than 5,000 foreign-born children, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, enter the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Many of these children are asylum-seekers or refugees who have fled persecution or hardship in their countries of origin; some have been past victims of abuse, neglect, exploitation and abandonment. When apprehended by the INS, unfortunately, the abuse often continues.

Once in INS detention, unaccompanied minors frequently are denied access to legal counsel, education, contact with family members, religious volunteer visits or services and trips outside the detention facility. They are also subject to punitive measures such as handcuffing, shackling and solitary confinement. Last year, 2,000 of these minors were detained in the same facilities as violent young offenders.

The Feinstein-Graham legislation would create a separate office within the Department of Justice devoted to children’s services. The office would be charged only with ensuring the child’s well-being, which would avoid the current conflict of interest inherent in giving legal custody of unaccompanied children to the INS. It would also guarantee each child a guardian and legal counsel and set down guidelines for the treatment of unaccompanied minors, protecting them against deportation without a hearing, inappropriate detention practices or abuse within the system.

In addition to the ACLU, the legislation is supported by a broad coalition of public policy, human rights, civil liberties and immigrant advocacy groups including, among many others, the National Council of La Raza, Human Rights Watch, the American Jewish Committee, Catholic Charities USA, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The Coalition Letter in Support of the Bill can be found at:
/node/20768

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