Homeland Security Bill Must Also Protect Children
By Alfred P. Carlton, Jr.
President, American Bar Association
"Pick on someone your own size" is a longtime American expression
and point of view. As a nation, we believe firmly in the notion of fair fights,
and that�s why it�s so important that the final version of the Homeland
Security Bill contain some basic safeguards for immigrant children who arrive in
America alone and unprotected.
For years, most "unaccompanied alien children," as they are called,
have arrived at our borders and been summarily thrown into grim detention
facilities. The INS, acting in the conflicted role of both their caretaker and
prosecutor, immediately begins hauling them into immigration courts. Usually,
these children speak little English and have no knowledge of American law.
Almost always, they have no lawyer or guardian. Immigration judges have seen
children as young as 18 months brought before them without anyone to defend
Thankfully, current efforts to organize a Department of Homeland Security
(DHS) promise to right some of these wrongs. Provisions in both House and Senate
versions of the Homeland Security Bill will move the care of most such children
to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a section of the Department of Health and
Human Services that has vast experience in working humanely with those who seek
asylum in America. Children who pose behavioral, criminal or security risks have
wisely been assigned to control of the new DHS, but thousands of youngsters
would face a far less harrowing journey through the U.S. immigration system. For
children like Got, a 3-year-old boy from Thailand rented by human traffickers,
7-year-old Aishat from Nigeria, who fled the threat of genital mutilation, and
abused, abandoned 13-year-old Edwin from Honduras, it would be very good news.
But there is a cloud brewing over what at first appears to be a happy ending
to this story. A new attempt in the Senate � an effort to strip out a
structure that gives each child a guardian and lawyer, and replace it with
funding for research on whether these unaccompanied alien children need such
help � threatens efforts to treat them humanely and give them a fair chance in
immigration proceedings. Apparently some members of Congress think children need
another government study more than they need someone to defend them. If they
succeed, more toddlers may face an immigration judge all alone.
Members of the American Bar Association have spent the past decade donating
tens of thousands of hours of free legal help to such children. Our volunteers
have seen the system up close, and we know what needs to be fixed. We call upon
the Senate to do everything necessary to protect our country against those who
would seek to destroy it. But we also call upon Senators to hold firm to the
American belief in fairness, and to protect our youngest and most vulnerable
immigrants against those who would challenge their right to a fair fight.