Defending the rights of immigrant children

Special Interest

18 August 2022

© Jana Shea / Shutterstock

Between April and December 2021, the number of children encountered by United States border control on the border to Mexico escalated to more than 26,000, compared with just under 10,000 in the same period the year before. [1]

In response to the increased number of children entering the US across its southern border, the current US administration opened more than a dozen emergency intake sites and influx facilities, placing thousands of children in convention centres, military bases, and oil worker camps. The National Center for Youth Law immigration attorneys have conducted 19 site visits, interviewed more than 230 children detained in these facilities, and uncovered conditions that are unsafe, unsanitary, and damaging to children’s physical and mental wellbeing. Children have reported severe overcrowding, extremely limited access to showers, recreation, and education, and most concerning, deteriorating mental health and suicidal ideation.

The National Center for Youth Law works in the US with children such as these. It strives to ensure that immigrant children can live in communities, rather than in government custody, with the support they need to heal and thrive. The National Center for Youth Law works with all youth-serving systems across the United States, including immigration, child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and health. “One of our core objectives is to ensure detained immigrant children are released whenever possible, and treated with respect and dignity while detained,” says Jesse Hahnel, executive director of the National Center for Youth Law.

Currently, the immigration system in place in the US does not adequately support the needs of unaccompanied immigrant children. Through the work of the National Center for Youth Law, it is hoped that the public and federal policymakers will see the need for systemic change, putting in place policies and processes that ensure immigrant children are only detained when necessary and for minimal time. It is also hoped that these children receive adequate supports and services both in detention and when released.

“We are fighting for a world in which every child has a full and fair opportunity to achieve the future they envision for themselves,” says Jesse. “Unfortunately, most of our current youth-serving systems suffer from embedded structural inequities and fail to provide young people the supports and opportunities they need, particularly those who come from communities of colour and/or low-income backgrounds. What we do is partner with youth, families, and communities to hold those systems accountable and transform them altogether when necessary.”

Over the past several months, the National Center for Youth Law played a key role within the group of advocates that persuaded the White House to reverse course on the Flores regulations. These proposed regulations would have removed and weakened protections for children held in custody due to immigration laws.

It is clear that the National Center for Youth Law is doing great work in its efforts to ensure that detained children are treated with dignity and respect. This is especially clear in the recent news from North Carolina, where the court held that any sentence of over 40 years handed to a child qualifies as de facto life without parole, because it deprives the individual of the right to a meaningful opportunity for review and possible release. To find out more about the National Center for Youth Law’s work, check out its website. This grant falls under our Special Interest Progamme (SIP), which reflects the Trustees’ interests in making dynamic, diverse, large, innovative, and challenging grants. You can read more about the programme by clicking here.


[1] U.S Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection. (2021). Southwest Land Border Encounters (By Component) https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-land-border-encounters-by-component (Accessed 20-12-2021)

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