Warner, Kaine introduce bill to end policy that separates children from parents at border

Mark Warner, Tim Kaine on continuing resolutionU.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) introduced legislation that promotes family unity by prohibiting U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials from separating children from their parents, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Sens. Warner and Kaine also joined 38 of their Senate colleagues in a letter urging the Trump Administration to stop further traumatizing children and end Trump’s inhumane policy of separating innocent boys and girls from families who cross the southwest border seeking asylum in the United States.

The policy was put in place by the Trump Administration last month even though current immigration law does not require the U.S. government to separate immigrant parents from their children. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Trump’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy, hundreds of children have been separated from their parents and are being held in detention centers and other institutional facilities.

“Separating children from their parents at the border, many of them coming here desperate to escape the terrible violence in their countries, is a policy that is directly at odds with the fundamental values of this nation. This unprecedented and inhumane practice has been condemned by the U.N., is not rooted in any law, and could end today should President Trump choose to do so,” said Sen. Warner. “Instead, the President has used this new policy to terrorize innocent families as a means of deterring those who are legally seeking asylum in our country. In the absence of moral leadership from the White House, Congress should make it clear that the United States of America will continue to stand proud as a country welcoming of those seeking refuge from violence, poverty, and prejudice.” 

“The Trump Administration’s policies trample on American values by tearing families apart and demonizing people seeking refuge,” Sen. Kaine said. “This bill is an effort to protect kids from unnecessary harm by keeping families together and putting in place safeguards for children who have been separated from their parents.”

The Keeping Families Together Act will:

  • Keep families together: The bill promotes family unity by prohibiting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials from separating children from their parents, except in extraordinary circumstances.  In these limited circumstances, separation could not occur unless parental rights have been terminated, a child welfare agency has issued a best interest determination, or the Port Director or the Chief Border Patrol agent of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have approved separation due to trafficking indicators or other concerns of risk to the child.
  • Increase Child Welfare Training: The bill requires all CBP officers and agents to complete child welfare training on an annual basis. Port Directors and Chief Border Agents, those who authorized to make decisions on family separations, must complete an additional 90 minutes of annual child-welfare training.
  • Establish public policy preference for family reunification: The bill establishes a preference for family unity, discourages the separation of siblings, and creates a presumption that detention is not in the best interests of families and children.
  • Implement procedures for Separated Families: The bill requires DHS to develop policies and procedures allowing parents and children to locate each other and reunite if they have been separated. Such procedures must be public and made available in a language that parents can understand. In cases of separation, it requires DHS to provide parents with a weekly report containing information about a child.
  • Establish other required measures: In order to inform Congressional oversight and promote public understanding of the use family separation, the bill requires an annual report on the separation of families. Additionally, the bill requires the GAO examine the prosecution of asylum seekers.

Separately, in a letter to President Trump signed by 40 Senators, Sens. Warner and Kaine urged the Administration to stop the policy of separating children from their families at the southern border. The letter echoes the message of more than 540 state and national child development, child welfare and juvenile justice groups from all 50 states that sent a similar letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen. Citing the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Senators stressed the short- and long-term damage to these children from being unnecessarily separated from their families.

“We are writing to ask that you reverse course on your inhumane decision to separate children from their parents at the border,” the Senators said in a letter to Trump. “This policy has traumatized children who are fleeing extreme violence. Our government has a humanitarian duty to the children and families seeking asylum in the United States to end this policy immediately.”

The Senators underscored that the Administration’s cruel and unnecessary separations run counter to widely accepted standards of care that prioritize keeping children and families together whenever possible.

“Best practices in child welfare promote keeping children and their parents together unless removal is in the child’s best interest,” the Senators added. “Unnecessarily separating more children from their parents will further exacerbate the lack of home-based foster care placements available and increase the use of large-capacity institutional settings, such as abandoned military bases, to house these children.”

Joining Sens. Warner and Kaine on the letter were Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Angus King (I-ME), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Brian Schatz (D-HI).

To read the text of the bill, click here. Read the full text of the letter here.

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