Last October, I spoke on the phone with a man in Virginia. He wanted to know how to help the hundreds of immigrant kids he’d seen in the news who remained separated from their parents because of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. “I want to do something,” he said. “I Googled and I can’t find any information.” I directed him to organizations in his area that license foster families for unaccompanied kids.
Since that conversation, more children have arrived at our border seeking haven from deadly hurricanes and the pandemic’s impact, and — finally — protection, after a federal ruling in November forbade the Trump Administration to expel unaccompanied children and restored their right to seek asylum.
President Joe Biden has done the right thing by lifting even more of his predecessor’s heinous policies. His administration has ordered a review of asylum policies, ended an information-sharing agreement between federal agencies that scared off childrens’ potential sponsors, and revived the Central American Minors program, which allows children to apply for family reunification in the U.S. without having to leave their home country. The children at our border are not arriving because Biden lifted these policies. Actually, he hasn’t gone far enough.
The Biden administration has continued to apply Title 42, a Trump-era COVID-19 policy that turns away asylum seekers at the border. Not only does Title 42 have no public health basis and deny people their legal right to seek protection, but it has also likely increased the number of unaccompanied children. Migrant families in crowded Mexico border camps are making the impossible choice to send their children all alone to the United States, knowing that their children are assured entry and safety. Additionally, under our laws, children who arrive with loving caregivers – siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents — are also designated as “unaccompanied” if the relative is not their legal guardian. It is important that the children retain this “unaccompanied” status because it gives children access to services, lawyers, child advocates, and a child-friendly evaluation of their claim for protection. But under Title 42, U.S. authorities allow these children into the United States, but send the caregivers back behind the border, separating a family.
Biden came to office pledging to create a more humane immigration system. The current situation offers a rare opportunity to do just that by making the “best interest of the child” its guiding principle. Children’s safety and well-being must take precedence over any attempt to “punish” migrants for doing what they must to survive. The “best interest of the child” standard offers clear solutions to the needs of unaccompanied children at our border.
The best interest of the child standard requires that we keep families together. We can do this by once again following our asylum laws, ending Title 42, and allowing those seeking protection, including families, to enter the country. We can also do this by stationing child welfare experts from the Department of Health and Human Services at border facilities to evaluate the non-parent adults with whom the children arrive within the 72 hours required by law. If the caregiver is deemed safe, authorities can release the caregiver and child together to organizations equipped to help them reach their destination and reunite with family. If officials have concerns about an accompanying adult, HHS can transfer the child into its custody and begin the usual reunification process. This system would keep children out of unnecessary government custody, allow children to remain with their family members, and maintain the protections Congress has provided for children without a parent or legal guardian. HHS officials at the border can also jumpstart the reunification process for all unaccompanied children.
There is another broad, effective cohort eager to help these children: The American people. Like the gentleman who called me, many Americans have the means and desire to help children. A pre-election survey by Lake Research Partners found that Americans are united in the belief that the “best interest of the child” should guide all federal policy, including immigration.
The government has not even begun to tap this vast human resource. A massive public campaign and clear resource pages would allow interested parties to help. Agencies can host webinars to let the American people know about the immigration process for unaccompanied children and how they can become foster parents; run small, community-based licensed facilities for children’s short stay in government custody; or provide medical, mental health, language, or other support services. It can create grants and funding to provide the resources that willing and able American non-profits need to help. It can partner with immigrant communities, who know by experience the barriers these children have overcome and can support them to build a new life in America.
I fully expect more calls from people like the gentleman in Virginia. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to guide them to a clear, best-for-kids plan that is supported by our government? We can do this, together.