Young Center's Testimony on Continued Family Separation

On Friday, July 12, 2019, Jennifer Nagda, Policy Director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, testified at House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on family separation. Watch or read the oral testimony below and access the complete written testimony here.

Thank you, Mr. Chair, Ranking Member Jordan, and distinguished Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to be here today.

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights advocates for the best interests of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children according to well-established and universally accepted principles of child protection. We are working to create an immigration system that ensures the safety and well-being of every child, and that recognizes and treats children as children.

Since 2004, our attorneys, social workers and bilingual volunteers have been appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to serve as the independent Child Advocate, or best interests guardian ad litem, for thousands of child trafficking victims and other vulnerable unaccompanied and separated children in federal custody, who find themselves in very adult immigration proceedings. Our statutory mandate is to make recommendations regarding the best interests of individual children to federal agencies including the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services.

Over the past two years, across eight locations, we have worked on hundreds of cases where DHS officials unlawfully separated children from their parents.

If I leave you all with one message today, it is this: children are still being separated from their parents at the border, for reasons that have nothing to do with child safety and which would never pass muster under the child protection laws of all 50 states.

Despite the end of zero-tolerance one year ago this month, the Young Center has been appointed to more than one hundred children taken from their parents during this last year—nearly 20 percent of the reported 700 children newly separated. The average age of these children is just seven years old—the equivalent of a second grader.

These children spend months in government custody, often thousands of miles away from their families. Our staff, my colleagues spend hundreds of hours just trying to find parents who might be in U.S. Marshals custody, or in an ICE detention facility. We negotiate with ICE officers just to speak with the parents and convince them to let the parents speak with their children—often for the first time in months. And then we work to unravel the reasons for their separations.

I am here today to address the reasons for these continuing separations and their lasting impact on children.

In our experience, DHS has separated families based on mere arrests or suspicion of criminal activity by the parent. No state would permit separation for these reasons, unless the crime was related to child abuse.

In nearly every case, we have concluded that DHS’s reasons for the separation had nothing to do with the child’s safety, and that the separation was contrary to the child’s best interests.

In one case, a father with a single DUI and a prior deportation was separated from his child. In another, the mother of a toddler was accused of being a gang member—which even if true does not by itself justify separation. But she was not a gang member. She was a victim of extraordinary gang violence who fled here specifically to seek protection for her child, only to have her child taken from her for over eight months.

And we have discovered that in many of these cases, DHS ultimately allows the same family to reunify months later—but only to deport the family.

The split-second decision to separate a child from her parents can take weeks, or event months, to undo.

In the meantime, the harm to children is indisputable. From the Supreme Court to state courts, our laws reflect the importance of parents and family to children’s healthy growth and development. Scientific research bears this out, documenting the lasting harm to children’s physical, emotional, and brain development when they are separated from loving caregivers.

Our independent Child Advocates have witnessed this harm first hand. In our written statement we tell the story of a six-year old boy who believed, for months, that his father had intentionally left him; in truth, his father was given no choice. He had gently handed his son over to prevent officers from forcibly taking his child from his arms. Their bond can’t be repaired just by putting the father and son together on a plane to their home country.

In our written testimony, we propose eight concrete recommendations for Congress to stop these unnecessary and unlawful family separations. I will leave you with just two:

1.     No child should ever be separated from a parent unless there is an immediate risk of harm. Congress should prohibit separations absent verifiable evidence that the child is in danger.
2.     Congress should require each federal agency to consider the best interests of unaccompanied and separated children—their safety, their wishes, and their well-being—in every decision, from the moment of apprehension through the conclusion of the child’s case.

This Committee can play a critical role in stopping ongoing separations and ensuring that immigrant children are treated and recognized as children.

 Thank you.

Maddie Witters