Fair Day in Court Bill Would Drastically Improve Outcomes for Refugee Children

Washington – Access to legal counsel dramatically improves the outcomes of Central American refugee children seeking asylum in the United States and new legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate would guarantee that no immigrant child would ever have to face the court system alone.

The First Focus Campaign for Children (FFCC) applauds the introduction of the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, introduced today by U.S. Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV), Dick Durbin, (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Al Franken (D-MN), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

“Leaders in the U.S. Senate today took an important first step to acknowledge that this is a refugee crisis, not a border security issue, and that children and families coming to the U.S. from Central America deserve a fair shot at asylum,” said Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus Campaign for Children.

In January, FFCC and more than 50 national and state children and families’ advocacy organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging his administration to stop prioritizing the removal of children and families and instead focus on ensuring that children and families seeking asylum have appropriate legal representation and access to legal services.

“This is an important shift away from deportation and enforcement to a more humanitarian response that ensures children and families with valid asylum claims are properly screened, get their day in court and are represented equally and fairly,” Lesley said. “We commend Senators Reid, Durbin, Leahy, Murray and Menendez for not turning their back on children fleeing the unconscionable levels of violence and abuse in Central America.”

Today, FFCC Vice President of Immigration and Child Rights Wendy Cervantes delivered the following remarks during a joint press conference with Sen. Menendez and representatives from the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Kids in Need of Defense:

“The First Focus Campaign for Children applauds Senators Reid, Durbin, Leahy, Menendez, Franken, Murray, and Hirono for introducing the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016.

In America, no child should be forced to face a courtroom alone, especially when the outcome may be a matter of life or death. Children are not little adults. This bill would ensure that children seeking protection in the United States are guaranteed legal counsel in their immigration proceedings.

As advocates for children, we’ve been urging the Administration, as well as Congress, to put the best interest of children first, ever since the beginning of the Central American refugee crisis. Children fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador do so because they have no other choice.

These are children who deserve the very best protection our country can provide, yet many continue to go without a fair day in court, and others are returned to the very danger they were trying to flee without adequate assessment.

As advocates for children, we’ve also been gravely concerned with the Administration’s enforcement-heavy response to this crisis because it puts children in harm’s way. We have seen kids go through expedited removal proceedings—often without counsel; children and mothers locked up for months in detention facilities; and communities terrorized by ICE raids in the middle of the night.

We’ve also seen increased enforcement efforts to stop children and families who are seeking help from ever reaching the United States. We agree with Senator Menendez that a deterrence is a flawed and dangerous strategy, and that no family or child should be returned to their death.

Instead of showing children compassion, these misguided policies have caused them further trauma.  We as a country can and must do better than this.

We believe that this bill is an important first step to fulfill our moral and legal obligation to do right by vulnerable children who urgently need our help.

In addition to ensuring that all children and mothers have a lawyer, the bill ensures that all individuals in detention, including families with children, receive legal orientation programs so that they understand their rights.

We’re also pleased that this bill creates a pilot program to help unaccompanied children better access legal counsel and get connected to the basic services every healthy child needs, such as enrolling in school.

As a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization, our interest lies in the welfare of kids. We’re interested in seeing our legal system, hailed by many as the greatest in the world, do right by kids who come to our country looking for help. Every child, no matter where they come from, deserves a fair shot at safety and prosperity. While this bill won’t fix the conditions that are driving thousands of unaccompanied minors to seek refuge in our country, it will address a major flaw in our legal system that continues to put the lives of innocent kids in peril. ”

Learn more about the First Focus Center for the Children of Immigrants.


The First Focus Campaign for Children is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization. The Campaign for Children advocates directly for legislative change in Congress to ensure children and families are a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. For more information, visit www.campaignforchildren.org.

Children of Immigrants Press Release

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