Responding to the Needs of Unaccompanied and Separated Immigrant Children

Thanks to our generous supporters, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights launched the Children and Family Unity Project and added attorneys and social workers to each of our eight offices in 2018. This has enabled us to serve many more immigrant children. Our policy team also expanded to better amplify our voice. Your support has allowed us to respond not only to the family separation policy but to other significant efforts to restrict the rights of immigrant children who seek safety in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security is still separating children from their parents. Despite the official end of the “zero tolerance” policy, the Young Center has seen an increase in children who have been newly separated from their parents at the border. Because of our history of advocating for unaccompanied children in detention and our impact during the “zero tolerance” period, we are well-positioned to take on these new cases and successfully reunite children with their families either in the United States or in their countries of origin.

We’re not new to this fight. Beginning in the fall of 2017, the Young Center began receiving referrals for unusually high numbers of children separated at the border. It wasn’t until May 2018 that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "zero tolerance" policy: anyone crossing the border without permission would be prosecuted in criminal court proceedings before beginning immigration proceedings, and their children would be taken away. This was done across the board, with no exceptions.

On May 23, 2018, a Customs and Border Protection official testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the agency took 658 children away from their parents' care and custody in just two weeks.

On June 26th, 2018, a federal court in California ordered a halt to the administration’s policy of separating every family and required that families be reunified. Because of our experience in the field, Young Center staff and Child Advocate volunteers at all eight regional offices were appointed to the cases of many separated children. Many of the children were of “tender age,” under five years old. Our Child and Family Unity Project, launched with the support of individual donors and foundations, allowed us to dedicate four full-time staff attorneys, two social workers and a case support specialist/paralegal dedicated exclusively to parent-child separation cases. As DHS persists in separating children from their parents, our staff continue to be appointed as Child Advocates to newly separated children.

The number of unaccompanied immigrant children in detention has risen to unprecedented heights. Nearly 15,000 unaccompanied minors were in detention as of December 2018, roughly double the number of children who were in custody just one year prior. This increase is due to the government’s failure to address the root causes driving migration from Central America and the administration’s concerted plans to deter migration by dramatically ramping up the apprehension and detention of immigrant families. Many unaccompanied children still face lengthy detention and we are working to ensure that they don’t give up their legal right to request protection and end up being deported.

Young Center Expansion

In response to both the parent-child separation crisis and the rising number of children in detention overall, we increased our capacity across all eight offices. Our goal is to reduce the number of separated and unaccompanied children on our wait-lists. In total, we have added 19 new positions, making us an organization of 65 people, including attorneys, social workers, paralegals, volunteer coordinators, policy staff, and an expanded administrative team. With this added capacity, we expect to increase the number of children we serve by 50%.

A longstanding goal has been to have social workers in all Young Center offices. Until this year, only three of our eight sites had a social worker on staff. Contributions from private donors allowed us to add social workers in each site. Ours is an interdisciplinary program, and social workers provide critical insight into our work with vulnerable children, from the very youngest to teenagers balancing turbulent changes in their lives. They also provide support to our staff who risk “secondary traumatization” from the cases they work on. We are pleased to finally achieve this goal.

In addition to the growth of the Young Center Child Advocate Program, we are expanding our Policy Program, adding a Policy Associate and a Senior Policy Analyst for Child Protection. The team is expanding our base of support on both sides of the aisle and increasing collaboration with other children’s rights organizations.

To learn more about key policy issues impacting immigrant children click here.

To read our interim report click here.

Maddie Witters