Success and Impact

NCYL Helps Pass The Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Protections Act

Painting of young person from behind flexing her arms

The California State Legislature helped protect the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children with its passage of Assembly Bill 1140, the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Protections Act, during the 2021 legislative session.

The bill, which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2021, guarantees that unaccompanied children who are held in California-licensed residential facilities and homes have the same rights as all other children in these facilities. It is designed to protect the health and safety of unaccompanied immigrant children in the state, andwas co-sponsored by the National Center for Youth Law and several other children’s and immigrant’s rights organizations.

Much-needed reform

Thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children come to the U.S. each year without a parent or guardian, fleeing violence, war, and poverty. These children are temporarily taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) until an appropriate sponsor is identified or until they can be placed into long-term foster care while they undergo immigration proceedings. 

The federal government is required to provide care for unaccompanied children in state-licensed childcare settings. On average, approximately 2,500 unaccompanied children are held in ORR custody annually in California-licensed facilities. Unaccompanied immigrant children often do not have the ability to exercise their rights and ensure their safety and wellbeing in these facilities in the same way as other Californian children because they lack access to resources and advocates with both the training and authority to assist them.

AB 1140, which was authored by California Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), addresses this issue by clarifying that unaccompanied immigrant children are under the jurisdiction of the California Office of the Foster Care Ombudsperson. The Ombudsperson is charged with overseeing the rights of children in state-licensed facilities, and is an independent, impartial, and confidential agency trained to investigate concerns about the treatment of youth in state-licensed residential facilities and to educate youth and licensed programs about their rights and responsibilities under California law.

The Ombudsperson could be crucial in safeguarding the rights and best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody when state-licensed programs have failed to meet their obligations.

Some key examples of how the Ombudsperson’s Office will be able to assist unaccompanied children through this legislation include:

  • Investigating complaints made by or on behalf of unaccompanied children about treatment in state-licensed childcare settings; 
  • Educating childcare program staff about their state licensing obligations and children’s personal rights under California state law; and
  • Ensuring that children can exercise their right to communicate with family members, including children, co-parents, and their own parents.

California has set a national example by making explicit the state’s role in exercising oversight over the treatment and care of children in state-licensed ORR facilities. 

In addition to the National Center for Youth Law, the bill’s supporters include: Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) (co-sponsor); Youth Law Center (YLC) (co-sponsor); Legal Services for Children (LSC) (co-sponsor); Immigrant Defense Advocates (IDA) (co-sponsor); Vera Institute of Justice (co-sponsor); Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) (co-sponsor); Immigrant Defenders Law Center; and Public Counsel.