Letter to House Judiciary Committee Regarding Concerns with H.R. 2820, the Dream Act of 2019

As organizations dedicated to child and youth well-being and advocates for young people, families, community safety and justice, we strongly urge you to oppose H.R. 2820, the Dream Act of 2019 (“Act”), unless the discretionary bars based on juvenile adjudications or alleged or actual gang affiliation are removed. As the House moves to finally codify protections for immigrant youth who have known no other home than the United States, members are uniquely positioned to fight back against the false narrative that has emerged around immigrant youth in recent years. We are calling on you to put the forward the best bill possible to protect all immigrant youth, and urge you not to support these discretionary bars to relief under the Act for the reasons outlined below.

The first juvenile court system was created in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois and, by the 1920s, every state in the country followed suit.[1] The goal of these courts was to rehabilitate rather than punish youth, and cases were treated as civil rather than criminal.[2] While the system has evolved over time, at its core, the juvenile court was created and exists in recognition that youth should be treated differently than adults. With the study of adolescent development and neuroscience over the past two decades, we have learned that youth, even into their late teens, do not have the same ability as adults to make mature decisions.[3] Engaging in reckless behavior during adolescence is socially normative behavior. While crimes peak around late adolescence, they begin a steep decline into adulthood.[4] All youth, including immigrant youth, should be held accountable in developmentally appropriate ways and those consequences should not follow them into adulthood.

It is also important to consider a bar based on juvenile adjudications in the context of current statistics on youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Between 2003 and 2013, the rate of youth committed to juvenile facilities after an adjudication of delinquency fell by 47 percent.[5] Despite this drop, youth of color remain far more likely to be committed than white youth.[6] Latinx youth are 65 percent more likely to be detained or committed than their white peers, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015.[7] Black youth are five times more likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth.[8] And while disaggregated data is scarce, one study of the California Youth Authority in 2002 found that Cambodian and Laotian youth were incarcerated at 4 and 9 times the rate that would be expected by their respective populations.[9] Vietnamese and Laotian youth had the second and third highest arrest rates in Richmond in 2000 after African American youth.[10]

Further, we have seen a trend from the current administration to target and criminalize immigrant youth and youth of color.[11] This mislabeling and targeting of young people of color is reminiscent of calls in the 1990s when alarmist name calling and subpar research gave rise to public fear of the so-called “Superpredator.”[12] At the time, a report issued by John DeIulio called on the nation to fear young, wilding teens, remorseless and driving violent crime.[13] This led to nearly every state in the nation passing laws making it easier to charge children as adults and to impose lengthy mandatory minimums and life without parole sentences.[14] However, the predictions never materialized. In fact, youth crime is at a 30-year low,[15] but youth and communities of color are still paying the price for these damaging and ineffective policies. This data represents a disproportionate and harsh impact on youth of color, and a bar to relief under the Act on the basis of a juvenile adjudication would create a double punishment for immigrant youth.