Washington, DC – Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) today called for immediate implementation of commonsense policies and precautions to protect the long-term health and safety of unaccompanied children on the move and those who provide vital services for this vulnerable population, including federal employees, social workers, and legal service providers.
“During this time of national crisis, we must not turn our backs on the needs of unaccompanied children seeking safety in the United States. They need our help now more than ever,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “The United States doesn’t have to choose between services for Americans and continued assistance for these kids. In fact, in times of crisis, it is more important than ever to live up to our nation’s longstanding commitment to protecting kids from harm.”
The spread of the COVID-19 virus poses unique challenges for the United States and its vulnerable populations, including unaccompanied children within the U.S. or at the southern border. For example, people living or working in close quarters with large numbers of other individuals, including unaccompanied children in government facilities, are more likely to contract a contagious virus than those in homes where social isolation is a more viable option. KIND is monitoring these challenges in real time and working to partner with government agencies, pro bono attorneys, and other stakeholders to address them. For example, KIND is working to:
Protect the Wellness of Kids in Federal Facilities: KIND is spearheading joint advocacy with key allies in the health community to urge that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) take actions essential to ensuring the wellness of children housed in ORR facilities. These include urging government leaders to follow the recommendations of professional medical organizations, minimize prolonged detention, and safely reunite unaccompanied children with willing sponsors who can provide living conditions that support the federal guidance to social distance. In addition, medical personnel who serve children in federal custody should have access to the necessary protective medical clothing and testing resources needed to identify and treat potential positive cases.
Ensure the Continuity of Legal Services: KIND has led an effort with other legal services providers to demand accommodation and flexibility to ensure children are able to continue to receive legal information in ways that would not put them or providers at risk, including through the establishment of expanded video teleconference services within federally-funded facilities. The ORR has favorably met this request, a step KIND praises and recognizes as a crucial policy shift to protect our clients, staff, and the employees who work in federal facilities. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, KIND will monitor the implementation of this effort to protect the legal rights of its clients.
Halt Non-Urgent Legal Proceedings for Unaccompanied Children: KIND organized a coalition letter calling on the Executive Office of Immigration Review to postpone immigration court hearings for detained unaccompanied children to minimize risk of coronavirus exposure. This is in line with recommendations from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Association of Immigration Judges, and other legal professional organizations.
Safeguard U.S. Legal Obligations to Protect Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Unaccompanied children are among the world’s most vulnerable populations. These are boys and girls, many under the age of 12, fleeing mortal persecution. In recognition of their unique vulnerabilities—and of U.S. laws, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, that prescribe specific due process protections for unaccompanied children – restrictive immigration policies implemented by the Trump Administration have often exempted such youth. The response to COVID-19 should also protect these vulnerable children. In addition, under binding domestic and international law—whether Section 208 of our Immigration and Nationality Act or Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention—the United States must provide all asylum seekers a fair opportunity to pursue protection on our soil and must refrain from returning those individuals to harm. Just this week the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees affirmed this continuing obligation. By turning away unaccompanied children at the southern border, the United States would defy its binding commitments and reject lawfulness precisely when we need it most.
For more information about KIND’s work to protect unaccompanied children feeling to the United States during this unprecedented international public health crisis, please contact Megan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org or track the latest developments by visiting www.supportkind.org.