Immigrant Minors

Despite public and political outcry for one child, thousands of others face detention

Released to a foster family last month, she marked six weeks of her jail time after the INS had granted her asylum. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than a third of detained minors spend time in secure facilities. Indeed, the INS provides 350 shelter beds, but has 500 kids in custody on any given day.

Yet even those who remain in the more open shelters find themselves in handcuffs and leg shackles when taken for court hearings. And no matter how puffy the couch or how good the ESL teacher, they're still in punitive, restrictive settings, notes Triche, lacking control over such mundane and essential matters as eating, going outside, or using the telephone.

Over the last 15 years, lawsuits, meetings between advocacy groups and the INS, and public pressure have gradually improved the agency's treatment of minors. But there's a fundamental flaw in the system that makes excesses and abuses inevitable: what advocates call a gross conflict of interest. "The same agency that is charged with protecting the legal rights of these kids and looking after their welfare is also supposed to arrest, imprison, and sometimes deport them," explains Michael Bochenek, counsel to the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "That just doesn't make any sense."

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