The White House recently announced that Vice President Harris will lead the response at the border, signaling an important step in realizing the administration’s promise to build a just and humane immigration system. For years, the U.S. has been stuck in an endless cycle of urgent response, and what’s happening at the border now makes it clear that the U.S. can no longer keep going this way. It’s time the government take bold action to transform how it welcomes children into this country and ensure their human rights. Compassion and dignity must become the administration's leading lights, and the well-being of children the barometer for success.
We’ve seen some of the worst of what the U.S. can do: In 2018 and 2019, Amnesty International and the Women’s Refugee Commission visited the temporary influx facilities for unaccompanied children at Tornillo and Carrizo Springs in Texas, and the notorious Homestead facility in Florida. Advocacy groups like ours sounded the alarm, calling for accountability for human rights violations at these facilities. We demanded an end to the cruel policies that had necessitated the use of these facilities at all — forcibly separating families and using children as bait to deport their potential sponsors.
Now it’s time for the U.S. to envision its best, and seize this window of opportunity to break out of the cycle of urgent response. Let’s be clear: the Biden administration has inherited a chaotic, punitive system that doesn’t prioritize the well-being of children seeking safety in our country. Yet, the administration cannot wait to deliver promised change. And no matter the situation or who’s heading the administration, the government can’t get out of its human rights obligations. We know from previous challenges at the border that reform needs to start now, or else it will never happen.
The good news is that important steps are already underway. The administration is taking a whole-of-government approach to welcome children safely and quickly. It has revoked the dangerous agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) that endangered children and their sponsors — which advocacy groups like ours fought for years. Mobilizing FEMA for emergency intake sites is helping to swiftly and humanely address children’s welfare by moving them out of border facilities. And putting creative processes into place to get children out of ORR shelters faster right now will not only create more capacity, it’s also the right thing to do.
But it’s not enough. The administration needs to do more to get children out of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stations more quickly, while taking immediate steps that will lead to long-term reforms, so we’re not here in the same situation in another year. ORR should start the sponsor-vetting process at the border, rather than at a later stage. These agencies should test not only children but also their sponsors for COVID-19 to enable quicker release and even potentially allow children to quarantine with their sponsors, who are often parents and family members.
Most critically, the administration must start right now to expand its network of ORR facilities. It’s straightforward: facilities should be permanent, licensed, and small scale. Children shouldn’t be warehoused in facilities with 500 beds as if they’re in a processing plant. Foster care options must be a part of the equation.
This expansion process will take time, and that’s why the administration must act urgently. We don’t want to again be using temporary facilities like Carrizo Springs, which are an imperfect stopgap measure. Accountability and oversight will be critical. While these facilities are in use, the Biden administration must ensure the right safeguards are in place to care for children. Children held there shouldn’t be short-changed their rights. Unlike before, temporary facilities should have the same services and standards of care as permanent ones, and children be released as quickly as possible from them. The government must also ensure regular access to these facilities for independent monitors, child welfare experts, and attorneys.
The other critical component: streamlining the sponsor-vetting process so children can have a place to call home. Efficiencies don’t mean compromising thoroughness; the well-being of the child is always paramount. It’s clear we need immediate investment in processing sponsorship applications much more quickly as well as increasing post-release services to ensure children’s welfare. Most unaccompanied children have families and sponsors waiting to welcome them, and that’s where they belong — the government is not a parent.
Just because challenges exist in the process of welcoming children at our southern border does not mean we should stop welcoming them, just as we must work to welcome all families and people seeking safety. It’s our legal and moral obligation, and it’s their human right to ask for safety. It’s time to double down, get it right, and make it better, in both the short and long term.
For over 15 years, advocates have been working to improve this system to protect the needs of children. We call on Vice President Harris and the Biden administration to approach this issue with the urgency, accountability, and transparency it deserves — we can’t be back here in another year. Children’s futures depend on it.
Denise Bell is the Researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA and Leah Chavla is a senior policy advisor in the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.