Vice President Harris has been tasked with untangling myriad migration challenges at the U.S. southern border, including addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. The list of possible root causes is long, and solving problems such as political instability, violence, deep poverty, and devastation brought on by natural disasters is not going to be easy. These challenges pre-date the Biden Administration and they are likely to persist beyond it.
However, in the midst of these complex, global migration challenges, there are some certainties. Children and youth, whether in their home country or migrating to a new one, have the same needs. They need safe and stable places to sleep, eat, and learn. They need health care services to prevent and treat physical and mental health conditions. They need to be protected from child labor, child trafficking, and other criminal activity. Fundamentally, they need the care and support of loving adults.
We have several laws in place designed to protect migrant children, whether accompanied by a caregiver or traveling alone. The Flores Settlement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act require children to be released from custody without delay (preferably to a parent or family member). If release is not possible, children must be held in the least restrictive and most appropriate setting possible, typically a non-secure facility licensed by a child welfare entity.
The Biden Administration must adhere to these standards even as the number of migrant children and youth increases. Licensed shelters that are a permanent part of the HHS network are already overwhelmed, and the Administration is moving quickly to expand capacity. But even as they take this urgent action, important steps such as appropriately vetting sponsors and developing a system to keep track of children as they move from place to place cannot be circumvented.
Children and youth fleeing unstable and unsafe environments will need careful interventions from licensed and screened providers to help them recover from the trauma they’ve endured. Moving quickly to meet the rising demand does not mean it is acceptable to cut corners.