Young Center's Mission Endorsed by National Report

National Report Calls for Independent Child Advocates for all Unaccompanied Children Immigrants
Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights
February 27, 2014

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) today announced the release of a national report recommending that independent Child Advocates be appointed for all unaccompanied immigrant children. The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago Law School is the only program in the nation providing Child Advocates for immigrant children. The report, A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. Immigration System, authored by the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and KIND, recognizes the central role played by the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago Law School in protecting immigrant children. View the full report here

The report calls the Young Center  “a foremost authority in this area,” and notes that it is the only organization in the country assigning independent Child Advocates for unaccompanied immigrant children. These are children who come on their own from all corners of the world, from places as diverse as Central America, the African continent, China, India, Romania, even North Korea. They come to the United States without their parents, seeking safety and protection. They are apprehended by immigration authorities and placed in deportation proceedings in an immigration system that was created for adults. Most often they don’t have an attorney or an adult to look out for their interests. This is where the Young Center steps in.

The Child Advocates’ job is to represent the best interests of these children, which can at times put them at odds with deportation officials, immigration judges, and even the child’s attorneys, when it turns out the attorney has been hired by traffickers or smugglers. For children at risk of deportation, the Child Advocates argue for the children’s best interests, even though there is not yet a statutory best interests standard for immigrant children. In one case, for example, the Young Center was appointed Child Advocate for Cristina, a girl from Mexico who was sex-trafficked into the United States. The Child Advocate accompanied Cristina to the criminal trial of one of her traffickers, where Cristina testified about her experience. When Cristina contemplated returning to her traffickers in Mexico, the Child Advocate successfully fought for Cristina’s acceptance into a therapeutic program for trafficking survivors. The Child Advocate also submitted a detailed, fact-based recommendation about Cristina’s best interests to immigration authorities, who granted Cristina’s request for lawful status in the United States.

The report recommends that the “best interests of the child” be a primary consideration in all decisions about unaccompanied children—a recognition of the mission of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. The report also recommends that all children in immigration proceedings have legal representatives, which the Young Center has long fought for.

“We’re hoping we can convince Congress to enact a best interests standard for immigrant children,” said Maria Woltjen, Director of the Young Center. “The best interests standard requires that immigration authorities consider the impact of a decision on the safety and well-being of a child. We need an immigration system that looks after children, and recognizes that because of their youth and vulnerability, they require special consideration. Today’s immigration system should reflect the longstanding and universal principle that, before a child is deported, the government should consider the best interests of the child.”

The Young Center assigns bilingual law students and community volunteers to serve as Child Advocates for unaccompanied children detained in Chicago, as well those detained along the Texas border. Today, there are more than 500 children detained in the Chicago area, and more than 1200 children in custody in Texas. Immigration authorities project that the numbers will increase dramatically this year to 60,000 from 26,000 last year. (This doesn’t include children from Mexico who, for the most part, get turned around at the border.)

The report was underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation which is also supporting the Young Center’s two-year project to develop a best interests framework for implementation by federal agencies.

The mission of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is to promote the best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children (children on the move) with due regard to the child’s expressed wishes, according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Young Center is a champion for the best interests of children who arrive in the United States on their own. The Young Center serves as trusted allies for these children by accompanying them through court proceedings, advocating for their best interests, and standing for the creation of a dedicated juvenile immigrant justice system that ensures the safety and well-being of every child.

Maria Woltjen