Press Releases

Washington—Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today delivered opening remarks at a subcommittee hearing on protections for unaccompanied immigrant children:

“I was the principal author of the Unaccompanied Alien Child Act, and I’m concerned by the administration’s efforts to gut the law and mischaracterize what it does. It appears the administration does not know the history or the real world impact of this law.

Recently, I authored an op-ed in the Washington Post where I discussed some of this history. Mr. Chairman, I’d like to enter that op-ed in the record, if I may.

I first became involved in this issue some time ago, watching the nightly television news and saw a young 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 did not understand what the judge was saying.

She had no idea 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.

By the time she appeared in immigration court, she had been detained for eight months. And after she obtained asylum, she was detained for an additional four months before she was ultimately released.

So I began to look into the issue and what I learned was that, very often, these minors were held in jails even though they had committed no criminal acts.

They were completely isolated, confined, forced to wear prison uniforms and shackles, and held with adult and juvenile criminal offenders.

As a result, I introduced legislation to ensure proper treatment of these minors.

Congress took an important step to protect these children when it passed the Homeland Security Act.

I worked with Senator Brownback, Senator Collins, Senator Durbin, Senator Hagel, Senator Kennedy, Senator Leahy, Senator Lugar, Senator Murray and Senator Schumer and I introduced the same bill many times.

In 2005, which is the most similar to current law, we had 25 cosponsors, including those above.

That bill adopted components of my legislation, including the definition of an unaccompanied alien child, and transferred the responsibility of the care and placement of these minors from the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Recognizing the need for additional protections for this vulnerable population, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act in 2008, to ensure the fair and humane treatment of these children.

Again, borrowing from our original bill, the TVPRA required that children from Mexico and Canada be screened for trafficking before being safely returned.

Additionally, children from farther away, or “non-contiguous” countries under the law, were to automatically be transferred to the care and custody of Health and Human Services within [72] hours.

The law was designed to ensure that children weren’t languishing in facilities designed for adults. These children are also given an opportunity to make their asylum claim before trained asylum officers, or an immigration judge, and must be held in appropriate conditions if they are to be detained.

These are not loopholes. They are laws that Congress passed to address the documented injustices facing children in our immigration system—specifically the government’s failure to treat these children humanely after decades, decades.

In the United States, there are plenty of examples—in both civil and criminal law—to show that we believe children should be treated differently. Our immigration laws should be no exception to that fundamental principle.

And, we’re not alone in that thinking. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and all the countries in the European Union, among many others, have special laws relating to the processing of asylum claims by children and unaccompanied children.

For example, Canadian law, recognizing the harm of prolonged detention for children, stipulates that a minor child “shall be detained only as a measure of last resort.”

In Italy, unaccompanied children are appointed legal counsel and are granted immediate rights to health and education, even before they receive their permanent residence, among other measures.

Australia too requires that the detention of minors be a “measure of last [resort.]”

Mr. Chairman, as I have said, I’ve been at this a long time and I will oppose all efforts to amend the law regarding the processing of unaccompanied alien children.

For those who believe these laws are loopholes, I implore you to look to the history of this issue and instead, work with me to ensure that children are treated humanely and fairly, and prevented from being placed in the hands of traffickers.”