Whether documented or undocumented, immigrants are often caught up in lengthy legal actions. When immigrant parents get into legal trouble, their children can be extremely vulnerable. In the event of incarceration or deportation of an immigrant parent, the courts decide what will happen to their children.
Governmental bodies, of course, purport to have the best interests of those children at heart. But parents – the most important advocates a child can have – are often excluded from court proceedings if they are involved in immigration disputes. These are the proceedings in which parental rights and the child’s future are decided: at least 5000 children nationwide are in foster care because their parents have been detained or deported.
In recent sessions of Congress, lawmakers introduced a bill called the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act. The bill ensures a number of crucial protections for children of immigrants that find themselves embroiled in legal actions.
The bill would:
- Allow parents, soon after their initial detainment, to make phone calls to arrange for someone to take care of their children;
- Require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to consider the children’s best interest when making decisions on the detention, release, or transfer of immigrant parents (this moves the law in line with child custody proceedings in divorces, in which the child’s best interest is always held paramount);
- Allow children to visit or at least call their parents during their detainment;
- Ensure that parents are allowed to participate in their children’s family court hearings;
- Ensure that if parents are required to leave the country, their departure can be coordinated with their children.
The legislation did not pass when it was introduced in previous sessions as a stand-alone bill. However, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) succeeded in adding the bill as an amendment to an immigration reform measure that appears to have quite a bit of momentum behind it. That bill was recently passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 13-5 vote. It would provide most undocumented immigrants in the United States a pathway to citizenship, reform border security, and implement new worker visa rules. And thanks to Sen. Franken, it includes vital protections for vulnerable children who are adversely affected through no fault of their own.
Franken introduced a second amendment that the committee also voted to add to the bill. It would reassign the responsibility to provide lawyers and other advocates to unaccompanied children. That responsibility currently lies with Health and Human Services, but Franken’s amendment would put it in the hands of the Justice Department, which Franken says is better equipped to handle it. According to a press release from the Senator’s office, “as recently as 2012, half of the unaccompanied children who arrived in the country were forced to represent themselves in immigration court.”