As a state circuit court judge in Wisconsin, I have the privilege of upholding the law and ensuring the fair administration of justice. This includes maintaining the integrity of the U.S. justice system for all, including children. Last month, I was appalled by the passage out of committee in the U.S. House of Representatives of an immigration bill that targets unaccompanied children by decimating longstanding bipartisan laws designed to keep them safe. That bill, which is now part of the Secure the Border Act of 2023, includes a provision that would eliminate funding for immigration attorneys for children—forcing 3- and 4-year-olds to face the legal system alone. That leaves them vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual exploitation when they are returned to their place of origin.
This is not who we are. It must not be who we become. Children who migrate are still children.
If enacted, the Secure the Border Act would destroy the U.S. system for protecting unaccompanied children. The bill would significantly reduce the screening and protections for unaccompanied children arriving to the United States while making it virtually impossible for unaccompanied children within the United States to obtain legal relief. By doing so, the bill would all but ensure the return of these children to situations of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and extreme violence—the very outcomes that bedrock bipartisan safeguards like the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) sought to prevent.
Instead of the protections in place under current law, all unaccompanied children would receive only a limited screening for human trafficking and fear of persecution by a low-level border official with no child welfare expertise. If that official does not identify signs of trafficking or persecution, the child could be expelled with no further review. For other children, the bill would require them to prepare to appear before an immigration judge—with no guaranteed right to counsel, while held in government custody—within 14 days. Because the bill also damages access to asylum, it would be unlikely an unaccompanied child would ultimately be successful in this hearing.
If the goal is border security, stripping foundational anti-trafficking legislation aimed at the protection of children is a step in the wrong direction.
As a judge, I am all too familiar with the challenges posed by our complex system of law. It is confusing to most adults, let alone children. Lawyers can help children navigate the confusing process of immigration proceedings, protecting their right to due process and helping the courts function fairly and efficiently. Legal counsel offers unaccompanied children lifesaving assistance both inside and outside of their immigration cases, including by keeping them out of exploitative labor conditions.
Lawyers develop trust and rapport with their clients and may for a time be the only safe adult in their lives who is looking out for their best interests and in whom they can confide. Lawyers have unique insight into a child’s life and any difficulties they are experiencing outside their legal case. Lawyers can help ensure their clients have access to health care, are enrolled in school and receive any humanitarian protection they might be eligible for depending on their circumstance.
Providing lawyers to unaccompanied children not only ensures their protection but also makes the system more efficient and orderly. For example, when unaccompanied children have lawyers, they are more likely to show up to court, and those court proceedings are more likely to be efficient and fair. Legal counsel can also help shorten the time children remain in government custody and reunite them with family or a legal guardian.
In debates on how to secure the border, it has become lost that all children, regardless of their status and how they arrived here in the United States, are worthy of protection. Their well-being and safety should not be part of a partisan debate. Congress can accomplish the goal they set out to achieve—border security—and reject the Secure the Border Act.
The vast majority of Americans, including a strong majority of conservatives believe that unaccompanied children should be provided legal counsel if they cannot afford a lawyer on their own. Even with an issue as divisive as immigration, this proves that fair treatment of children is perhaps the singular point we can all support. Unaccompanied children are entitled to due process and have the right to have their protection considered, as all children do.
Judge Ramona Gonzalez is a State Circuit Court Judge from Wisconsin and a member of the Kids in Need of Defense Leadership Council. She is the former president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court State Judges.