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Letters to the 107th Congress

April 26, 2001

The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
Washington DC 20510

Re: S.121, The Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2001

Dear Senator Feinstein:

I am writing on behalf of the American Bar Association to thank you for introducing S.121, the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act. This legislation is urgently needed to improve protections for unaccompanied immigrant children and to provide them with legal representation.

Last fall I toured an immigration detention center for children in Chicago. This was an eye-opening experience for me because until this visit I was unaware of the plight of children detainees.

As you are keenly aware, foreign-born children arrive in the United States every day unaccompanied by their parents or other legal guardians. Some are escaping political persecution, while others often are fleeing civil war, famine, abusive families, or other dangerous conditions in their home countries. When they arrive, these children generally have no legal status or support system and face a stressful and confusing ordeal.

Most detained children speak little or no English and are rarely aware of their rights under U.S. law. They frequently are detained in secure facilities, sometimes commingled with juvenile offenders. Although some children may have U.S. family members to whom they can be released, many will remain in INS custody while their cases proceed through the immigration court system. Over 4,600 unaccompanied children were detained in 2000 in over 90 different locations.

Although the consequences of deportation may be quite dire, U.S. immigration laws do not allow for the appointment of counsel at the government's expense. As a result, these vulnerable children frequently have no choice but to represent themselves. Nervously they wait, with very little understanding of the law and legal process, for their turn to appear before an immigration judge. Their cases are prosecuted by experienced INS trial lawyers. When these children are later deported, there is virtually no follow up to find out what happens to them. The ABA is working with state and local bars across the country to help these children secure pro bono representation. Still, this is an anomaly in our judicial system that urgently needs attention and legislative reform.

The ABA adopted policy in February 2001 addressing these matters. We strongly support enactment of legislation such as S.121 to provide every child in this situation with a court-appointed attorney to speak for that child in court and to assist him or her in applying for relief under U.S. law. The ABA also strongly supports the provisions in S.121 that would create an independent office within the Department of Justice that would have an oversight role and ensure that children's interests are respected at all stages of immigration processes and while in immigration custody.

It is important to ensure that all children within our borders are treated fairly by our laws and justice system. We want to thank you for your leadership on behalf of these forgotten immigrant and refugee children and offer our assistance in working with you to secure these long overdue improvements.


Martha W. Barnett
President, American Bar Association

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