Immigration reform is the only effective and long-term tool that will stop the inhumane and unjust treatment of immigrants in the United States. How to ensure a just and stable immigration system has been debated and contested throughout the history of the U.S. Fortunately, certain government officials and a large sector of the public are working to fix the humanitarian crisis. One of the most urgent problems in need of immigration reform is the passing of laws that put an end to cruel treatment of migrant children and families while under U.S. federal custody. Through the creation of bills like the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, proponents of humane immigration reform detail the necessary steps that should be enacted into laws so that children and families are legally protected from all abuses of their rights.
S.2113: Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act
On July 15, 2019, S. 2113: Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act was introduced in the 116th Congress by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley. The bill is co-sponsored by 39 other senators, including current Vice President, Kamala Harris. This act was introduced to “protect the health and safety of children in immigration detention, and for other purposes.”
The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act specifically calls for certain protections for migrant children who are under the custody of the United States federal government. Organized in nine parts, each section details the rights and regulations involving migrant children before, during, and after being in custody of the Federal Government.
In its first section, the bill defines its purpose and outlines its three overall goals: Confirm that the Federal Government is responsible for the health, safety, and well-being of children and families in the custody of the Federal Government; recommend the length of time children should be detained, and affirm that while in the custody of the Federal Government, migrant children should be treated with dignity, respect, and care; “with every effort made to minimize trauma, isolation, and conditions resembling prison.”
Section two of the bill, explains a series of definitions that will be used throughout the bill, such as a “child,” identified as anyone aged 17 and under; the term “influx” which is used in reference to detention facilities where more than 95% of bed reserves for unaccompanied children are occupied, and other definitions such as a detained individual, alien, and unaccompanied alien child.
The following six sections dive into the actual steps that will satisfy the purpose for the act.
Section three expresses certain limitations for the U.S. government when it comes to separating children from their parent/legal guardian. This section, titled “Ensuring that Families Stay Together,” specifically states that agents cannot remove children from their guardians unless there are signs of danger, neglect, human trafficking, or the state court sees separation is in the best interest of the child. The act prohibits the separation or removal of a child from their parent or guardian as a deterrent tactic to migration or to promote compliance with regular migration.
This act recommends that immigration agents receive training and guidance for separations that “conforms to current evidence and best practices in child welfare, child development, and childhood trauma,” as well as “90 minutes of child welfare practice training that is evidence-based and trauma-informed.”
Immigration agencies are required to document family separation thoroughly and include a reason and evidence of the separation. Documentation must also record the demographic information of the child, including age, gender, and relation to the guardian.
Lawmakers highlight that family unity must be favored and siblings should remain together. The law makes clear that detention is not in the best interests of families and children, and that immigrant families should stay together.
Health and safety protections for children in immigrant detention are discussed in section four. Upon immigrant children entering a detention center, the child must have medical examinations and have their temperature taken to ensure they are healthy. The most important implementation of this section is the requirements that children have access to the following: At least three healthy meals, at least one gallon of water, hygiene products, access to showers and toilets, medication if needed, and family visitations.
The bill recommends that children should not be kept in detention for more than thirty days and detention facilities should not hold more than 100 unaccompanied children at one time.
Section five deals with the release of migrant children and families from detention. According to the act, if an individual is under the age of 18, has a serious mental/physical illness, is elderly or pregnant, or is the primary caregiver of a child 17 and under, immigration enforcement cannot detain them.
Section six improves current legislation protecting the rights of children seeking asylum, “no child may be delayed or prevented from crossing the Southern border at a port of entry for the purpose of applying for asylum or any other applicable legal immigration status.” The bill states that immigration courts need to provide the children with legal support.
Access to counsel and immigration court improvements are the focus in sections seven and eight. Children are required to have representation at every stage of their process and case. Pro bono representation should not be denied in the event a lawyer offers it and the same rules apply to immigrant parents.
Section nine emphasizes the importance of holding immigration officers accountable for all the above rules and regulations. Officers are required to submit monthly reports including specific details of the number of children in custody as well as how many deaths have occurred in their facility.
Analysis of the Bill
Benefits of Adopting S.2113 Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act
The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act’s attention to detail makes this specific piece of legislation stand apart from other bills. Organized into nine sections, each part focuses on a certain stage of the immigration detention and asylum process.
Section 3 seeks to ensure that family separation only occurs to protect the wellbeing of the child. The bill makes a strong case that family separation is not in the best interest of the child.
According to NBC News, 5,400 children were separated from their parents at the border during former President Trump’s administration. This act will ensure that family unity is preserved in cases of family detention. Immigration officers will be prevented from separating a child from their parents without documented evidence that separation is in the best interest of the child.
Sections four, five, and seven focus on implementing safety measures regarding conditions in detention facilities that can have adverse impacts on migrant children and parents. Under United States government custody, NPR reporter John Burnett identified, 4,500 allegations by children of suffering sexual abuse or harassed while detained. As the public has seen throughout the years, children have been subject to inhumane treatment in detention facilities. Adopting this act would ensure that the United States focuses on detaining individuals who represent a real threat to the country; children seeking asylum should not fall under this category.
Sections six, eight, and nine revolve around procedures and improvements of legal representation in immigration detention centers as well as the asylum process. Given that this bill would ensure legal representation for families in detention, their cases would stand a greater chance of success and would offer them protections against extended detention stays.
In addition to ensuring children receive legal representation under custody of the United States federal government, children seeking asylum in the U.S. would not be denied their right to request asylum. According to the Office of Refugee Settlement, more than 200,000 children arrived to request asylum, either alone or with their parents in 2012. The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act would decrease the number of children that receive no legal representation when detained as well as ensure children’s right to request asylum in the United States.
Recent immigration laws have drastically hurt the immigrant community in the United States. When creating laws and regulations concerning immigration in the United States, it is crucial to consider the lives of future generations in the country. Creating legislation that impacts immigrants in the United States should not hurt the lives of children and families. The prime example of legislation that puts children first and steers away from victimizing immigrants is the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act.
Possible Amendments and Revisions to the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act
The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children stresses the importance of detailed documentation by immigration officers regarding children detained or seeking asylum. Documentation is highly crucial to help children reunite with their families in cases of separation; to evidence that children are being treated humanely, and to serve as crucial verification for legal representatives of children and families in immigration and asylum cases.
However, this bill does not address consequences for immigration officials who opt to bypass the documentation requirement or choose to ignore documentation proceedings. The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act would strengthen its case by adding a section stating repercussions for failing to uphold the duties of documentation.
Consequences for officers who dismiss their duty to document should be listed in the bill, as well as the repercussions for those failing to provide children with healthy meals and medical attention when needed.
A revision to the act should include a change to its use of derogatory terms, such as “alien” and “unaccompanied alien child,” terms inherited by other legislations that ought to be removed from any contemporary bill trying to broaden immigrant rights, as the language is discriminatory and offensive.
President Joe Biden is taking steps to restore the humanity of migrants by revising the demeaning terminology that has been used for years in legal documents to refer to children,and people seeking refuge; Biden is advocating for a “less dehumanizing term.”
Lastly, though the bill emphasizes the importance of providing hygiene products, food and legal counsel for families in detention, it should consider adding certain protocols to ensure detainees have access to mental health services and counseling. Families should not be confined in small spaces and should be allowed fresh air. Translation, interpretation and English language lessons would be key to ensuring families have their voices heard while detained. To file complaints or ask for mental health or medical assistance, families need to be able to communicate with immigration workers something that can be very difficult with a language barrier. Having interpretation services will help any miscommunication and allow for families to ask for assistance when needed without having to worry about misunderstandings in communication.
The Future of Immigration Law in the United States
Immigration bills are constantly being drafted to make changes to the immigration system in the country, but contentious ideological battles get in the way of passing laws that are urgently needed. Luckily, the current presidential administration is working on a series of executive actions that will help overturn policies and laws that have previously hurt immigrants in the United States.
As part of his campaign promises, President Biden announced his intention to fix the asylum process and reunite families that have been previously separated. As first steps, the administration launched a family reunification committee assembled by the president to focus on reuniting families. The task force will consist of the Department of Homeland Security working alongside the Secretary of State, the Health and Human Services Secretary, and even the First Lady of the U.S. Jill Biden.
Creating bills and taking actions to fix the immigration legal system in the United States will benefit the immigrant community in countless ways. Bills like the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act signal a path in the right direction, taking us a step closer to having a humane and just immigration system in the United States.
Valeria is a junior pursuing a major in Political Science/Law and Society with a minor in international relations. Coming from two immigrant parents who were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico, she has seen first hand the hardships immigrants face when moving to America. Seeing the difficulties immigrants deal with on a daily basis in America, it has inspired her to pursue a career as an immigration and civil rights lawyer. She has a passion for fighting for the rights of not only immigrants but for individuals who face racial and social injustices. She wishes to raise awareness about immigration issues such as the inhumane conditions children and adults experience in detention camps as well as helping families attain their documents to be able to work and live in the U.S. In the future she would like to start a charity that helps immigrant families overcome the difficulties that come along with living in a foreign country that is not always welcoming to immigrants. Valeria hopes that her work as an immigration writer will allow her to spread the stories of immigrants and that her career in immigration and civil rights law will allow her to create change for the Latino immigrant community.