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Attorney General Bonta Leads Multistate Effort Highlighting Critical Importance of State Licensing Protections for Facilities Serving Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today led a coalition of 18 attorneys general in a comment letter urging the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to preserve state licensing protections for facilities that serve unaccompanied immigrant children in any future rulemaking. The letter, in response to the federal government’s request for information, highlights the states’ longstanding experience caring for the well-being of children and the importance of retaining state licensing schemes that safeguard the health and safety of children, as well as immigrant communities.

“For more than a century, states have led the way when it comes to standing up for the welfare of our children,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Any effort to strengthen the existing process must preserve the hard-won protections already in place. No matter where they come from, all children deserve to have a chance to just be kids. They are entitled to be able to play, learn, and have a safe place to call home. Here in California, we’ll always fight to help make that a reality. We urge the federal government to work with us in those efforts. Safeguarding the health, safety, and well-being of children within our borders is something we must do together to accomplish.”

In the letter, the coalition notes that ensuring child welfare, including establishing and enforcing standards of care for licensing of residential placements for children, is a police power vested in the states. States, accordingly, have a long history, stretching back to the nineteenth century, of enacting child welfare laws that guide the care and protection of minor children who cannot remain safely at home. These comprehensive standards and licensing procedures ensure that residential placements for children provide the care and services necessary to support children’s healthy development in settings that further the best interests of the child. For example, the coalition states follow a policy of placing children in the least restrictive setting to meet their particular needs and have developed comprehensive standards to protect the personal rights, health, and safety of children in residential facilities. These protections can include the right to visit and contact siblings and family members, attend religious services, participate in extracurricular activities, go to school in the community, receive prompt, comprehensive medical care, and to be placed in out-of-home care in accordance with their gender identity.

The failure to respect the carefully crafted protections in state licensing requirements can unacceptably put the health and safety of children at risk. For instance, ORR’s previous use of non-state licensed facilities to house unaccompanied children has raised serious concerns about the health and safety of children detained in those facilities. In 2018 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services housed thousands of children in facilities, including in Tornillo, Texas, and Homestead, Florida, that were not licensed for the residential care of children. Conditions at these facilities were troubling, and were inconsistent with the standards required of state-licensed facilities. In Tornillo, children reportedly “spent weeks crammed 20 to a tent, languishing in the desert, far away from sponsors and attorneys, and without adequate access to basic needs such as schools or a firm roof over their head.” Similarly, “Homestead had the feel of a secure detention facility,” and “children were not able to leave Homestead freely.” Then-Senator Kamala Harris called conditions at the Homestead facility “a human rights abuse.”

Protecting immigrant children is important to states across the country. Every year, thousands of children are released from immigration custody and reunified with family members or other adult sponsors who are residents of the coalition states. These children become members of their communities and neighborhoods. Together, nearly half of all children who will be released from immigration custody by the federal government this year are expected to be placed in the coalition states. In order to protect the welfare of these children, it is critical that ORR work directly with the states to collaboratively care for unaccompanied immigrant children.

In sending the comment letter, Attorney General Bonta is joined by the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. 

A copy of the comment letter is available here.