By Dianne Feinstein
Originally published in The Washington Post.
I remember watching the nightly television news in the 1990s and seeing a 15-year-old Chinese girl trembling before a U.S. immigration judge. Despite having committed no crime, she was shackled and sobbing. She couldn’t speak English, and it was clear she had no understanding of what the judge was saying or what would happen to her.
Her parents had sent her to the United States in the cargo hold of a container ship because she had been born in violation of China’s rigid family-planning laws — and was therefore denied citizenship, access to health care and education.
This situation would not be allowed to occur today because Congress has enacted laws to provide basic humanitarian protections to unaccompanied immigrant children.
The Trump administration recently reignited its attacks on these protections, with the president going so far as to call laws that protect helpless children “loopholes.”
The administration says these laws prevent immigrant children from being removed from the country, when in fact the goal is to ensure that these children are detained for as little time as possible and only in an appropriate setting, they receive adequate food and water, and that they are given the opportunity to apply for asylum.
Under these laws, each child has a right to make their case before a trained asylum officer. If the hearing demonstrates the need for protection by admission to the United States, we’re obligated to provide it. And in cases where a child does not qualify for asylum or other forms of relief, they’re returned safely to their home country.
I know the intent of these laws because I authored two of them. They are not loopholes.
It’s important to understand why Congress acted to thus ensure basic human dignity for children.
The story of the Chinese girl I saw on television was not unique — mistreatment of child immigrants was widespread. Another young girl who fled China was detained in a facility that also held minors who had been convicted of murder and rape. Despite never having violated criminal law or been accused of a crime, she was routinely handcuffed and strip-searched.
A young boy who fled Colombia after being targeted for recruitment by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas was held in the same detention facility for six months.
Children as young as 4 were held in secure prisons, isolated and forced to wear prison uniforms and shackles. Some were even placed in solitary confinement, even though they weren’t accused of any crime.
These stories, which were detailed by Human Rights Watch, illustrate decades of government mistreatment of children, and they were the genesis of laws Congress passed to guarantee minimum requirements for treating children humanely.
A key first step toward reform came in 1997, after years of litigation over treatment of unaccompanied minors, with a settlement called the Flores agreement. Among its provisions were requirements that the government release detained children to an adult as soon as possible, hold children who can’t be released in appropriate facilities and ensure that all facilities meet humane standards.
Three years later, I introduced the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act and was able to get portions of the bill included in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.
The two laws, combined with the Flores agreement, are intended to ensure children don’t fall through the cracks of a system that processes thousands of them each year.
They require that children under 18 be placed in the least restrictive setting that is in their best interests. Rather than holding children in detention facilities that also hold adults or criminal juvenile offenders, preference is given to releasing them to family members or appropriate sponsors, such as a family friend.
Such placements ensure that children aren’t held in indefinite detention pending resolution of their cases, which can sometimes take years. They also mean that taxpayers aren’t paying for that detention.
These aren’t loopholes, they are basic principles of common human decency. And to demonize and politicize these children is appalling.
Contrary to the picture painted by this administration, current policies don’t guarantee a child will be able to remain in the United States. Nor do these policies mean dangerous individuals are being released onto our streets.
The Trump administration’s efforts to repeal protections for children are based on an ignorance of history. The only effect of repeal would be more children held in unsafe conditions at exorbitant costs to the taxpayer.
I will oppose any efforts to change these laws, and I call upon my colleagues in Congress to join me in resisting efforts to roll back protections for immigrant children.