Sen. Tina Smith Leads 23 Senators in Calling to Protect Minor Children Left Alone When Parents are Arrested or Detained By U.S. Immigration Officials

WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/23/18]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith introduced legislation—also supported by Minnesota colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar—that would protect the safety and well-being of minor children who have been left alone and vulnerable after their parents have been arrested or detained by U.S. immigration authorities.

Sen. Smith believes the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act is necessary because in the past children have been abandoned at home or at school after their parents’ detention, often without information about their parents’ location and without adequate arrangements for their care. She understands that with the Trump administration reportedly seeking to step up enforcement operations targeting immigrant families, and reportedly considering plans to separate children from their parents during enforcement operations, action is needed to protect children impacted by the administration’s actions.

Sen. Smith pointed to a 2006 incident that endangered young children in Minnesota. After Immigrations and Customs Enforcement carried out an enforcement action against a Worthington family, one child—a second grader—came home from school to find his two-year-old brother alone and his parents gone. For the next week, he cared for his brother while his grandmother drove to meet them.

You can learn more about the bill by clicking here and access text of Sen. Smith’s legislation by clicking here.

Sen. Smith introduced the HELP Separated Children Act in the Senate, where its cosponsors include Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), as well as Michael Bennet (D-CO), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Congresswoman Roybal-Allard introduced the companion legislation in the House of Representatives, where its cosponsors include Congressmembers Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Grace Napolitano (CA-32), Darren Soto (FL-09), and Filemon Vela (TX-34). Rep. Roybal-Allard has been the lead House sponsor of this legislation since 2014.

The HELP Separated Children Act’s protections for these children include: 

  • allowing parents to make calls to arrange for the care of their children and ensuring that children can call and visit their parents while they are detained;
  • allowing parents to participate in family court proceedings affecting their children;
  • protecting children from being compelled to serve as translators for their parents in immigration enforcement actions;
  • ensuring that parents can coordinate their departures with their children, including allowing parents to say goodbye to their children prior to being taken into custody; and
  • requiring ICE to consider the best interests of children in detention, release, and transfer decisions affecting their parents.

“Children shouldn’t be suddenly abandoned at home or at school without information on their parents’ whereabouts, but we’re seeing that happen to kids with moms and dads facing arrest, detention, and removal actions,” said Sen. Smith. “When parents aren’t able to get in touch with their children in these circumstances, we’re passing added trauma on to our young people. Since I first heard kids were being cruelly ripped from their parents in this way, I committed to protecting children whose families are swept up in immigration enforcement. This legislation makes good on my promise, but more than that, it’s the right thing to do.”

“This bill will protect children from experiencing unnecessary trauma when their parents are targeted for immigration enforcement actions,” said Sen. Blumenthal, a lead cosponsor of the bill. “Imagine being detained and not being permitted to ensure that your children are fed or looked after. Imagine being deported and not being allowed to say goodbye. The protections in this bill are so basic that it is shameful they aren’t already enshrined in law.”

“As the Trump Administration accelerates its cruel efforts to tear apart immigrant families at the border, it has never been more critical for us to protect the children who are impacted by the administration’s remorseless family separation policies,” said Rep. Roybal-Allard.  “I am honored to reintroduce the HELP Separated Children Act so that we have new tools to help protect these children from trauma and permanent separation from their parents.  If we have any decency, we must work to reduce the pain caused to children by this administration’s draconian immigration reforms.  That is why we need the HELP Separated Children Act, and why we must keep fighting for a comprehensive immigration reform package that treats children and families humanely while keeping our border secure.”

“The Women’s Refugee Commission is grateful to Senator Smith and Representative Roybal-Allard for their leadership in introducing legislation that will ensure that immigration enforcement is bound by basic, humane protections to minimize harm to children and parental rights,” said Emily Butera, Senior Policy Advisor for Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission.  “The trauma of immigration enforcement is not limited to the person facing detention and removal.  Millions of children all across America wake up every morning terrified that they could lose one or both of their parents.  Enforcement should never mean that a child cannot be comforted by her mother, or that a mother should lose the right to make decisions about her child’s care and interests.”

“We applaud Senator Tina Smith and Congresswoman Roybal-Allard for their leadership in protecting children who have been torn apart from their parents as a result of the Trump Administration’s harsh immigration enforcement policies,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “Millions of children—most of whom are U.S. citizens—are increasingly vulnerable to losing a parent to deportation. CLASP knows from our recent research the direct harm children experience when their parents are arrested, detained, or deported due to immigration enforcement.  The HELP for Separated Children Act ensures basic protections for children during enforcement actions and during a parent’s detention.  Putting children first, by ensuring parents can arrange for their care and maintain communications with them while detained, is a common sense approach to lessen the harm to children.”

According to a 2011 study, there are more than five million children in the United States living with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. The vast majority of these children are U.S. citizens. These children are vulnerable when their parents are the subjects of immigration enforcement, detention, and removal actions. When parents facing detention are not given the opportunity to make arrangements for the care of their children, this not only results in serious, avoidable trauma to children and families, but also unnecessary expenses for the state. Children of detained parents have been needlessly taken into the custody of state or local child welfare agencies. In the most extreme cases, because of their parents’ inability to participate in family court hearings, these children have been adopted or placed into foster care with well-meaning American families. Even when the outcome is not termination of parental rights, enforcement can lead to de facto permanent separation of children from their parents and cause tremendous harm to children, undermining their sense of security and even inflicting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In 2013, during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the previous version of the HELP Separated Children Act was the only amendment—out of nearly 200 amendments—to pass by a unanimous roll call vote.

You can learn more about the bill by clicking here and access text of Sen. Smith’s legislation by clicking here.