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News Releases - Division of Media Relations and Communication Services - American Bar Association - Law - Legal

American Bar Association - News Release

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 thatís why itís 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 them.

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 Ė 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 Ė 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.