Bishops’ migration chairman urges lawmakers to enhance protections for migrant children

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A young migrant from Venezuela walks with his brother as they join a caravan near Villa Comaltitlán, Mexico, heading to the U.S. border Nov. 20, 2021.
A young migrant from Venezuela walks with his brother as they join a caravan near Villa Comaltitlán, Mexico, heading to the U.S. border Nov. 20, 2021. CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee has sent a letter to lawmakers in Congress urging enhanced protections be put in place for migrant children.

“In recent months, several concerning reports have emerged regarding incidents of migrant children in the United States suffering exploitative labor conditions and other harmful situations,” Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said in his Nov. 9 letter.

“Among migrants, unaccompanied children constitute the most vulnerable group,” added the bishop, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

His letter follows the Nov. 1 introduction of a bipartisan, bicameral measure that would add protections for minors to immigration courts, which do not currently have protocols specifically for processing children.

The proposal faces steep odds in a divided Congress, but is notable for its bipartisan nature on an issue where there is often a stark divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, alongside Reps. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., and Maria Salazar, R-Fla., introduced the Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act, legislation they said would establish a Children’s Court within the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which they argued would both combat the immigration court backlog and strengthen due process rights for unaccompanied migrant children.

Reps. Hillary Scholten, D-Mich., and Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., are also original co-sponsors of the legislation, according to a release from Bennett’s office.

“Since joining the Senate, I’ve fought to reform our broken immigration system, keep our country safe, and protect innocent children who cross the border seeking asylum,” Bennett said in a statement. “This legislation will ensure kids fleeing violence and persecution are able to understand and participate in immigration court proceedings and are treated with the dignity, respect, and care they deserve. This bipartisan, pragmatic legislation demonstrates that we can find common ground and repair our broken immigration system to uphold the rule of law and honor our country’s heritage.”

In her own statement, Murkowski said the Biden administration “has failed on our Southern Border.”

“Our country is facing nearly 3 million border crossings in 2023 and continued dysfunctional immigration policies,” she said. “Each of these problems only exacerbate the severe backlog at our immigration courts and inhibit due process for individuals navigating the legal system. Unfortunately, these failures especially impact unaccompanied children, who are sometimes required to face a judge at their removal proceeding alone.”

“No child should be left alone in court — and the United States of America can and should do better for vulnerable children,” said Murkowski, who added that the newly introduced legislation is a “commonsense effort that would enhance the efficiency of immigrant courts and due process for children — while also training judges on how to hold proceedings specific to minors.”

The nation has “a long way to go in addressing the many and significant problems with our immigration system, particularly in securing our borders,” she said, but added that the legislative “effort takes real, pragmatic (steps) to ensure a more streamlined and appropriate process for vulnerable children.”

The USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services also recently sent a series of recommendations to lawmakers about ways to enhance protections for unaccompanied noncitizen children released from federal care. The lawmakers introduced their legislation before the USCCB agency sent its recommendations, but providing “robust funding for legal services” and establishing “a trauma-informed and child-centric process for immigration proceedings” were among the recommendations.

Migration and Refugee Services also recommended fully funding post-release services and granting the Office of Refugee Resettlement “authority to provide post-release services whenever it is determined to be in a child’s best interests”; an “Officer for Child Trafficking Prevention” within that agency and mandating training for ORR staff “to identify the signs of child maltreatment and human trafficking; and supporting state-level coordinators for unaccompanied children.”

“Undoubtedly, the plight of these children, including their ability to reunify with family and receive protection in the United States, is closely interconnected with our country’s response to current migration-related challenges,” Bishop Seitz said in his letter to lawmakers.

“Recognizing the unique needs of this population, MRS and its network of local, community-based care providers have long partnered with the federal government to offer home studies and post-release services, foster care, and small-scale shelters to noncitizen children in need,” Bishop Seitz added. “These programs are specifically designed to promote the safety, well-being, and best interests of those served, while also integrating our unwavering commitment to abolishing the evil of human trafficking.”

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