A coalition of children’s rights and immigrant advocacy groups are applauding new law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that strengthens protections for unaccompanied children in state-licensed facilities. The Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Protections Act guarantees asylum-seeking children have the same protections as other kids under the state’s care, by entrusting the state’s Foster Care Ombudsperson with oversight.
Bill sponsors National Center for Youth Law, Immigrant Defense Advocates, Youth Law Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Vera Institute of Justice Center on Immigration and Justice, Legal Services for Children, and Immigrant Legal Resource Center said the law, introduced by Assemblymember Robert Rivas and signed by Newsom last week, could become a model for the nation. The state has previously passed into law legislation that allows victims to sue private prison companies, and a law banning private prisons (though this is currently being blocked by conservative judges).
“California has set a new standard in protecting the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children held in California-licensed foster and residential facilities while in federal custody,” Vera Center on Immigration and Justice Deputy Director Shaina Aber said. “Thanks to this bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Rivas, immigrant children will be guaranteed the same protections and ability to address concerns as any other child in California-licensed care.”
Children who arrived in the U.S. without parents or a legal guardian are classified by the federal government as “unaccompanied minors,” and are held in Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody until they can be placed with a sponsor. This is usually a parent who is already here. “Approximately 2,500 unaccompanied children are held in ORR custody annually in California-licensed facilities,” the group said. “Between Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2021, 40,221 unaccompanied children were released from ORR custody to sponsors and family members in California.”
“The legislation comes nearly two years after attorneys with Disability Rights California released a report that said ‘ORR assessments and services fall short as compared to California state standards,’” The Sacramento Bee reports. “The nonprofit disability rights group also found that ORR policies and requirements lacked adequate medical care and mental health assessments, as well as special education services, for children staying in those facilities.” In Texas, children in ORR custody have been in facilities running with no state licenses at all, following orders from right-wing Gov. Greg Abbott.
“The shelters can continue operating, per a state Health and Human Services Commission emergency order issued after the governor's declaration,” El Paso Times reported in August. “But they will no longer be monitored by the state.”
Whenever unaccompanied children have to be placed in custody until they can be safely reunited with a sponsor, it should be for as short a time as possible, and in the safest environment possible. “Thousands of unaccompanied children cross our border fleeing poverty and violence, and many of them are temporarily taken into federal custody in state-licensed childcare facilities,” Rivas said. “California’s foster care system lacks explicit protections for unaccompanied immigrant children, which leaves them particularly vulnerable. AB 1140 addresses this vulnerability by clarifying the law to guarantee that this group of children will not be overlooked and underserved by the state during a time of desperate need.”
“This law will help ensure that all children in California, regardless of their immigration status, receive the compassionate and humane care they need and deserve,” Immigrant Legal Resource Center Staff Attorney Rachel Prandini said. “We hope other states adopt similar measures, and we hope the Biden-Harris administration will use this law as a blueprint in federal legislation regarding care of immigrant children.”