Bennet, Murkowski, Goldman, Salazar Introduce Bill to Protect Migrant Children, Address Immigration Court Backlog

Bipartisan Legislation Would Create A Children’s Immigration Court Specialized to Handle Sensitive Cases, Reduce Strain on Immigration Courts Nationwide

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) alongside U.S. Representatives Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) and Maria Salazar (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to combat the immigration court backlog and strengthen due process rights for unaccompanied migrant children. U.S. Representatives Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.), and Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) also joined as original cosponsors of this legislation.

“Since joining the Senate, I’ve fought to reform our broken immigration system, keep our country safe, and protect innocent children who cross the border seeking asylum. This legislation will ensure kids fleeing violence and persecution are able to understand and participate in immigration court proceedings and are treated with the dignity, respect, and care they deserve,” said Bennet. “This bipartisan, pragmatic legislation demonstrates that we can find common ground and repair our broken immigration system to uphold the rule of law and honor our country’s heritage.”

“The Biden Administration has failed on our Southern Border. Our country is facing nearly 3 million border crossings in 2023 and continued dysfunctional immigration policies. Each of these problems only exacerbate the severe backlog at our immigration courts and inhibit due process for individuals navigating the legal system. Unfortunately, these failures especially impact unaccompanied children, who are sometimes required to face a judge at their removal proceeding alone,” said Murkowski. “No child should be left alone in court—and the United States of America can and should do better for vulnerable children. That’s why I cosponsored this commonsense effort that would enhance the efficiency of immigrant courts and due process for children—while also training judges on how to hold proceedings specific to minors. While we have a long way to go in addressing the many and significant problems with our immigration system, particularly in securing our borders, this effort takes real, pragmatic to ensure a more streamlined and appropriate process for vulnerable children.”

“We have an obligation to protect the children who arrive at our borders without their families, and it is vital that we make our immigration system easier for these young people to navigate,” said Goldman. “Children coming to the United States alone have often traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to escape extreme violence and other dangers. Far too often, these children are left alone to navigate a judicial system they do not understand, frequently in a language they don’t speak, and sometimes without a lawyer to represent them. A dedicated children’s court within our immigration system will allow us to tailor a complicated immigration system to a child’s needs and ensure they receive due process and essential assistance.”

“Children are often the greatest victims of our broken immigration system,” said Salazar. “We must do better to meet children’s needs while streamlining immigration court proceedings and making our courts more efficient. I’m proud to co-lead the Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act to improve outcomes for children, families, and the American people in our backlogged immigration courts. And most importantly – keep them safe.”

“Let’s be clear about one thing–infants and children should not be in a situation where they have to stand trial in immigration court,” said Scholten. “We have a deeply broken immigration system in this country. But as we continue the long and complicated work for repairing it, of fighting for justice in a political climate that has grown callous to the suffering of children, the next best option is creating a court that works to accommodate their unique needs. As a mom, I’ll never stop fighting for these vulnerable kids.” 

“It’s no secret that our immigration system is riddled with serious flaws, including in the immigration court process. Unfortunately, the current process can result in children being left alone to fend for themselves. Although a number of problems are contributing to this crisis, we are a compassionate nation – and we should make needed improvements to ensure vulnerable children aren’t abandoned in our immigration court system. I’m honored to join this bipartisan effort to create a better and safer court process for unaccompanied children,” said Chavez-DeRemer.

Unaccompanied migrant children face unique obstacles as they navigate the complex U.S. immigration system. After they are placed into removal proceedings, many unaccompanied children appear alone before a judge in immigration court. Children’s cases are legally complex and often take longer than adult cases to hear. As a result, there are more than 62,000 pending unaccompanied children’s cases in the United States.

The bipartisan, bicameral Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act is a common sense proposal to strengthen due process for vulnerable children and combat the immigration court backlog. The legislation would establish a Children’s Court within the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) focused on the adjudication of unaccompanied children’s removal proceedings. 

The newly established Children’s Court would require: 

  • Specially Trained Personnel: Children’s Immigration Court judges would receive special training on child trafficking, developmental and trauma-informed practice, and docket management tools. 
  • Child Participation Protocols: The Children’s Court would ensure that children can easily attend court, actively engage in the process, and fully understand their rights to help overcome typical challenges in children’s proceedings. The bill would require that the Court utilize child-appropriate procedures to help ensure that children comprehend the proceedings, are treated appropriately for their developmental stage, and have sufficient time to secure counsel. 
  • Coordination with Legal Services Organizations: Legal services organizations would coordinate with the Court to help children access legal screening and immigration proceedings at the same time and place to ensure that children obtain counsel faster and more efficiently. This approach reduces unnecessary time in court and can prevent procedural delays. 

“Unaccompanied children should not be treated the same as adults by our immigration court system. Children have unique vulnerabilities, specialized relief options, and differing abilities to understand and participate in the legal process. While what is most needed is for every child to have an attorney to represent them in removal proceedings, children should at least be treated as children as they go through the immigration court process. RMIAN supports this bill because it would ensure that all unaccompanied children go through immigration court proceedings in child-friendly and child-specific courts with specially trained personnel and partnerships with children's legal service providers,” said Ashley Turner Harrington, Children's Program Managing Attorney, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.

“The Immigration Court Efficiency and Children's Court Act of 2023 will help ensure that unaccompanied children -- including those at risk of labor abuses and other exploitation -- receive a fair, child-appropriate legal process,” said Jennifer Podkul, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy, Kids In Need of Defense (KIND). “This commonsense bipartisan measure will also help streamline proceedings and conserve limited government resources at a time of significant strain on the U.S. immigration court system. We applaud Senators Bennet and Murkowski and Representatives Goldman, Salazar, Scholten, and Chavez-DeRemer for leading this pragmatic effort.”

“Navigating the immigration court system can be challenging, but even more so for unaccompanied children,” said Mary Smith, President, American Bar Association. “The American Bar Association supports this effort to ensure that vulnerable children have their cases adjudicated fairly, in an environment that is sensitive to their special needs, while enhancing the efficiency of immigration courts.”

“AILA applauds Sen. Bennet, Rep. Goldman, and their co-sponsors for championing heightened protection and due process for children facing removal proceedings before immigration courts. For decades, children, even toddlers, have gone before immigration judges with no idea of the gravity and consequences they face—including deportation to violent, dangerous home country conditions. Under this important bill, judges and government attorneys will receive better training on how to work with children in court proceedings to ensure they get a fair day in court,” said Greg Chen, Senior Director of Government Relations, American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“By safeguarding some of the world’s most vulnerable children, the Immigration Court Efficiency and Children's Court Act embodies the kind of meaningful solutions we need to live up to our nation’s core values of justice and fairness. Through commonsense reforms to bolster due process and protections for unaccompanied kids, this bipartisan bill in the House and Senate would go a long way toward restoring efficiency and humanity to our immigration courts,” said Laurence Benenson, Vice President of Policy & Advocacy, National Immigration Forum.

“Bipartisan action is needed to surge resources to the border to address the immigration court backlog. That’s why Third Way supports the bipartisan and bicameral Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act introduced by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Representatives Dan Goldman (D-NY) and Maria Salazar (R-FL). This bill would reduce the current court backlog and strengthen due process for unaccompanied children crossing the border by creating a Children’s Court. Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable in our immigration system and should not be left to navigate it on their own. The Children’s Court would ensure that unaccompanied children are given the resources they need, such as specially trained judges and language and legal services, to have their case tried in a fair, child-friendly, and swift manner. This targeted surge of resources will help reduce the current strain of court backlogs on our immigration system while we await the opportunity to truly fix the system moving forward,” said Lanae Erickson, Senior Vice President for Social Policy, Education, & Politics, Third Way. “This bill is an important first step toward immigration reform, and we hope to see more to come from this group of bipartisan and bicameral policymakers. We applaud them for being willing to champion solutions, not just empty rhetoric and political attacks.”

“How the United States treats and cares for vulnerable children defines who we are,” said Mario Bruzzone, Senior Policy Advisor, Women’s Refugee Commission. “Our current legal system fails to recognize that children seeking refuge in the United States are children, and that children have a right to appropriate procedures and trauma-informed practices. The Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act is an important step towards ensuring that immigration court treats children fairly.”

“The children. Remember the children. Children should not have to leave home. Children should not have to come to a foreign land. Children should not be forced to work. Children should not be trafficked. Children should not get lost in the system. But they do,” said Fran Eskin-Royer, Executive Director, National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. “The National Advocacy Center works to safeguard children and families and to stop human trafficking. The Sisters and NAC are delighted to support the introduction of the bipartisan Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act of 2023 and to call for its passage. This bill would help break the link between human trafficking and forced migration by protecting unaccompanied children who are innocent and too often caught in the riptide of these two difficult issues. We are deeply grateful to Senators Bennet and Murkowski and Representatives Goldman, Salazar, Scholten, and Chavez-DeRemer for putting forward this bill for the children.”

“The most vulnerable people in immigration proceedings are unaccompanied children. The Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act of 2023 not only improves the process for children, it also provides necessary support and guidance to the overburdened immigration court system to address the needs of these children,” said Cecelia M. Espenoza, Former Appellate Immigration Judge.

This legislation is supported by 45 organizations, including:: World Relief, National Immigration Forum, Church World Service, Women's Refugee Commission, American Immigration Lawyers Association, American Bar Association, the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) and the Hispanic Federation.

The text of the bill is available HERE. A summary of the bill in English and Spanish is available HERE.