California must protect unaccompanied immigrant children

Demonstrators at a 2019 protest in San Francisco show photos of immigrant children who died in custody without adequate care. (Photo: Suzette Leg Anthony, via Shutterstock)

The California Legislature has taken an important step to protect unaccompanied immigrant children by passing AB 1140, the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Protections Act.

The bill guarantees that unaccompanied migrants cared for in California-licensed residential facilities and homes are safe and have the same rights as all other children in these facilities. If signed into law by Gov. Newsom, it would join a legacy of state bills aimed at protecting the health, safety, and well-being of immigrants in California.

Every year, thousands of unaccompanied children come to our country fleeing persecution, violence and seeking a better life. When they arrive, they are required by law to be quickly transferred and placed into temporary federal custody with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in state-licensed residential settings, while awaiting reunification with their family or sponsor.

Until unaccompanied children can be reunited with family, they should be placed and cared for in safe and developmentally-appropriate foster care or other state-licensed facilities.

This means that while they are still technically in the custody of the federal government, their day-to-day care is entrusted to these residential facilities and homes, and the state that licenses them. These children are a vibrant part of California, attending school and integrating with their communities.

These state-licensed residential facilities and homes are governed by the same California laws that govern facilities that care for youth in the foster care system. Unaccompanied children should therefore be protected by the same relevant rights and protections as all California children in foster care.  

Sadly, this hasn’t been the reality.

Until unaccompanied children can be reunited with family, they should be placed and cared for in safe and developmentally-appropriate foster care or other state-licensed facilities. However, a 2019 Disability Rights California report on California ORR facilities found that unaccompanied children frequently did not receive proper educational assessments or adequate mental health and medical evaluations and care.

In order to clarify this issue, and ensure that these children receive the care and protections they deserve, a broad coalition of children’s and immigrants’ rights advocates and lawmakers have joined together to support AB 1140, the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Protections Act authored by Asm. Robert Rivas (D-Hollister).

AB 1140 takes the important step of demonstrating California’s leadership in ensuring that there will be no “separate but equal” system for immigrant children in state-licensed residential settings. It does this by clarifying that these children are under the jurisdiction of the California Office of the Foster Care Ombudsperson. The Ombudsperson is charged with overseeing the rights of children in these facilities, as an independent, impartial, and confidential agency trained to investigate complaints about the treatment of youth in state-licensed residential settings, and to educate youth and licensed programs about their rights and responsibilities under California law. 

As we have seen play out tragically in other states, the experiences that unaccompanied children have in these facilities can forever change their lives. That is why it is critical that California does everything it can to provide clear and concrete protections to promote the resiliency and wellness of children who have already experienced the trauma of fleeing violence, traveling to safety alone, and other institutional trauma.  

There are many things that we must do on the issue of immigration, and to care for children coming to our borders. Advocates have been working long and hard to push for those changes on the federal level. While we await necessary changes that will welcome immigrants and unaccompanied children with dignity and compassion, California can and must act as a leader on this issue, setting a national example for other states to follow. 

California is regularly one of the top three states in the country that receives unaccompanied children. AB 1140 provides a clear and tangible benefit to these children, serving as an important first step in ensuring that these children are not lost in an already complicated system.

Editor’s Note: 
Maria Ramiu is Senior Staff Attorney at the Youth Law Center (YLC). Cindy Liou is State Policy Director for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Jackie Gonzalez is the Policy Director of Immigrant Defense Advocates (IDA).

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