What does your organization seek to accomplish?

The Young Center ultimately seeks to change the immigration system for unaccompanied immigrant children so that decision makers—immigration judges, asylum officers, enforcement officials—are required to consider a child’s best interests in making their decisions. We are working to achieve this result on three fronts: best interests advocacy on behalf of individual children; working with federal agencies to change practice in the field through implementation of a best interests framework; and policy advocacy at the local and federal level.

Unaccompanied immigrant children come to the U.S. from all over the world. They arrive on their own, without their parents. These children make difficult, often dangerous journeys to escape rampant violence, child labor, severe abuse and desperate poverty. We are witnessing a historic migration of people, including unaccompanied children, all over the world. Here in the Americas, high numbers of children are coming to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Nearly 600 unaccompanied children are in federal custody in Chicago at any given time.

Since the election, the Young Center has focused its efforts on safeguarding hard-earned protections for immigrant children in the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Protection Act (TVPRA) and preparing to respond to implementation of changes to federal policy outlined in the January Executive Orders and directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in February. For example, one of the Administration’s Executive Orders and the corresponding DHS directive explicitly contemplates enforcement actions against parents and family members who bring their children to the United States. Enforcement actions include deportation proceedings and even referral for criminal prosecution. Children would be questioned about how they arranged to come to the U.S., and this information could be used to apprehend or even criminally prosecute parents or family members. If this happens, families will be afraid to step forward to take custody of their children, leaving children to languish in federal custody for far longer periods of time. And it would greatly increase the number of families facing long-term or permanent separation.

Direct Service: The Young Center is working to change the system by serving as Child Advocate (similar to a guardian ad litem) for children in immigration deportation proceedings. Bilingual community members alongside Young Center attorneys and social workers, are appointed as Child Advocates by the Department of Health & Human Services. As Child Advocate, our role is to meet with the children while they’re in custody, learn their stories, and advocate on their behalf with respect to family reunification, release from detention, legal representation and the ultimate question as to whether the child will remain in the U.S. or return to home country. The Young Center submits best interests recommendations, based on state and international law, to government decision makers, including judges, asylum officers and enforcement officials.

Implementation of Best Interests Framework: The Young Center is working to affect change by working with stakeholders in the field to put the best interests standard into practice. Although there is no statutory best interests standard for immigrant children, decision makers have the discretion to consider best interests. Through a 3-year project funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Young Center worked with federal agencies to create the “Framework for Considering the Best Interests of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children.” (http://theyoungcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2016-Best-Interests-Framework-Immigrant-Children.pdf) This document is a practical guide for incorporating best interests considerations in the absence of a standard in immigration law. We are now working with stakeholders to implement the Best Interests Framework, including immigration judges, the Asylum office and enforcement officials in Chicago.

Policy Advocacy: There has been significant progress over the last decade, and we are now focused on preserving existing protections set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) which is up for reauthorization in 2017. These protections include access to attorneys and Child Advocates, family reunification and access to a court hearing. Given the current political climate, it will be critical to safeguard existing law, policy and practice that provides protections.

Who benefits from the work of your organization?

Unaccompanied immigrant children benefit from the Young Center’s work. The children served by the Young Center are those considered the most vulnerable, for example, children who have been abused, infants who are the subject of international custody battles, children who have developmental disabilities, young girls who want to live with their traffickers, those who have lost their parents to violence, and more.

How does your organization address racial, economic and/or gender justice?

The Young Center addresses access to justice by advocating for the best interests of children who are from all over the world—Central America, Mexico, Guinea, Ethiopia, India, China—to ensure they are recognized as children with rights and protection needs all their own. The most stark example of the difference in the way unaccompanied immigrant children are treated compared to U.S. citizen children is that decision makers are not required to consider the best interests of children in immigration proceedings. The Young Center is working to address this inequity by advocating for immigrant children according to state best interests laws and international law as if it was a requirement. Through serving as Child Advocate, we make sure that everyone—immigration judges, asylum officers, enforcement officials—looks at each child as an individual, and considers that individual child’s best interests rather than relying on stereotypes about immigrant children based on race, religion, country of origin or ethnicity. Current rhetoric is increasingly anti-immigrant, calling children who come to our borders illegal. Under U.S. law anyone, including children, may come to our border and ask for protection from persecution. The Young Center reinforces that it is not illegal to come to the U.S. border and ask for protection by advocating for the rights and protection needs of immigrant children. 

What evidence do you have that your work is effective?

The Young Center started as a small project in 2004, when the United States Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), provided seed funding to build a model project to provide Child Advocates for unaccompanied immigrant children. Since then, we have assigned Child Advocates for more than 2500 children and we have expanded to a total of eight locations across the country.

Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluated the Young Center’s work, performing a yearlong audit in which it interviewed attorneys, immigration judges, detention facility staff, and representatives from ORR as well as reviewing years of Young Center data regarding its services. The GAO found that over 70% of the Young Center’s recommendations were adopted by the entity receiving them. Among other key findings, the report echoed the core of the Young Center’s mission, saying, “According to our interviews with stakeholders, these recommendations give children—especially those who are unable to make an independent decision due to young age or trauma—a voice during the immigration process.”