Home Our Work Our Publications Supporting Immigrant Youth Caught in the Crosshairs of the Justice System

Supporting Immigrant Youth Caught in the Crosshairs of the Justice System

[Download the PDF]

Out of the estimated 11.1 million noncitizen immigrants living in America today, approximately one million are children under 18 years old. Many of these youth have come to this country fleeing violence and oppression, carry complex emotional burdens from trauma, and face basic language barriers. As national anti-immigrant rhetoric has escalated to the point of associating immigrants with animals and infestation and equating immigrant youth with gang members, these youthful immigrants have often become caught in the crosshairs of the justice system. Rather than being supported to develop into successful adults, immigrant youth are more often being targeted for arrest, detention, and deportation.

As immigrant youth engage with the school and youth justice systems in this country, it is incumbent upon us to treat these youth – as we aspire to treat all youth in the United States – equitably, with dignity, and in a way that supports positive youth development and the rehabilitative goals of the youth justice system. Supporting immigrant youth has become increasingly more difficult, however, as federal, state, and local jurisdictions have adopted laws and policies that are threatening to immigrant youth and their families and fail to humanely support them. These include policies that promote local cooperation with federal immigration authorities, facilitate the deportation of immigrant youth and families, fail to protect the confidentiality of young people’s school and justice records, increase harm to immigrant youth involved in the justice system, and fail to provide trauma informed, culturally and linguistically competent services for immigrant youth. While some of these policies negatively impact all youth, they can have profound consequences for immigrant youth, including higher risk of detention and the possibility of deportation. Each of these policies further serve to traumatize and instill fear in immigrant youth, impeding their ability to follow through on the services that will lead them on the path to positive youth development.


NJJN makes the following recommendations to support policies that uplift all families and further best practices for positive youth development for all youth, regardless of immigration status.

1) Do not entangle local and state law enforcement, youth justice, and school officials with federal immigration enforcement and encourage laws and policies that support immigrant youth.

2) Do not use gang databases and, where used, do not share them with federal authorities.

3) Safeguard students with policies that prohibit federal immigration authorities from entering schools, require warrants or other court documents to review student records, and discourage the use of school resource officers for the handling routine disciplinary matters.

4) Protect the confidentiality of all youth in the justice system, including immigrant youth.

5) Avoid detaining youth, including immigrant youth.

6) Use an immigration lens when reviewing current and proposed youth justice policies. Consider the possibility that children and/or adults that care for them may be immigrants and take actions that support their healthy development, rather than those that further traumatize or harm them.

7) Ensure youth in the juvenile justice system have access to defense counsel that understand the immigration consequences of juvenile justice system involvement and, where necessary, access to immigration attorneys.

Read the full policy platform, Supporting Immigrant Caught in the Crosshairs of the Justice System.