Kids in Captivity

Scared and Alone, Nearly 5000 Children Wind Up in INS Detention Each Year

Davinder "Jimmy" Singh was only 14 in July 2000 when his father paid a smuggler to take him from his village near New Delhi to a new life with his aunt and uncle in America. It took him about 16 hours to fly from Bombay to New York and a year and a half to reach his relatives in California. In between, he spent nearly two months in a guarded hotel room where he was sometimes handcuffed to the bed at night; three months in a shelter where he threw up every day from being forced to eat everything on his plate, including the meat, which had never been part of his Sikh diet; and a full year in a youth detention center, where he says he was bullied by the larger boys and belittled by the staff. His host for this ordeal was America's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which nabbed the undocumented boy upon his arrival at JFK and detained him as his request for asylum crawled through the system.

While the post-9-11 roundup of Arab and Muslim immigrants has put INS detention in the spotlight in recent months, the plight of the nearly 5000 children locked up by the system each year remains one of America's ugliest secrets. Their average age is 15; the vast majority are boys. Senate subcommittee hearings on a proposed bill to take the responsibility for such children away from the INS are scheduled for Thursday.

According to INS spokesperson Karen Kraushaar, when minors enter the U.S. illegally—usually for the same reasons as adults, seeking democratic freedoms and opportunity, fleeing persecution or war—the government takes great pains to locate U.S. relatives and usually manages to turn kids over to them within three days. In the thousands of instances in which such efforts fail, though, the agency places children into custody in one of some 90 facilities around the country—usually campus-like shelters run by nonprofit agencies, but sometimes high-security prisons that incarcerate U.S.-citizen juvenile offenders. Meanwhile the immigration courts consider whether the child can stay in the country or must be deported. Typically, the process averages a little over a month, says Kraushaar, but it can drag on much longer if there's trouble finding a sponsor or the agency fears that the purported "relatives" are really "snakeheads," smugglers who will sell the kids into indentured servitude or prostitution.

But the system often breaks down, immigrant advocates charge. More than a third of the detained youngsters wind up like Jimmy, languishing in untenable situations for months, and sometimes for more than a year. Many of these children, already lonely and fearful, are further isolated because there's nobody around who speaks their language. During most of his detention, Jimmy communicated in Punjabi only during the two five-minute phone calls he was allowed to make to his relatives each week. Worse, more than half the kids don't have attorneys, despite the labors of pro bono projects around the country, so they often go into hearings with little understanding of what is happening and no knowledge of their legal options. Those with counsel are often transferred to facilities far away from their lawyers.

In one of the most egregious cases currently, Alfredo López Sánchez, a 16-year-old Mayan from Guatemala, has been shuttled from one facility to another seven times over the last two months, sometimes with his ankles shackled and his wrists handcuffed to a chain around his waist. Alfredo arrived in June, seeking asylum from domestic abuse so severe that a psychologist has diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was placed in a 56-bed shelter in Miami popularly known as Boystown. Operated by Catholic Charities under contract with the INS (to the tune of $1.9 million a year), the residence looks like a low-rent boarding school. (Indeed, kids attend school there and begin each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Claiming that Alfredo might be planning to run away, in November the INS transferred him to Monroe County Jail for "his own safety," though the jail's contract with the INS to hold immigrant detainees explicitly excludes juveniles. After Alfredo's attorney, Christina Kleiser of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, complained, the INS moved him to a juvenile shelter in Leesport, Pennsylvania, 1200 miles away from one of the few interpreters of his rare native dialect, Southern Low Mam. In December, the INS transferred Alfredo back to Boystown for a day, then moved him to a Miami hotel, then back to the Monroe County Jail, which refused to house him, and then back to the hotel, where for about three weeks he sat in a guarded room all day in a weird sort of house arrest. In early January, the INS brought him back to Pennsylvania, then early this month back to another Miami hotel so he could attend a scheduled hearing there. It took a federal restraining order to keep him in Miami as his case goes forward.

Complaints about such seemingly arbitrary and pitiless actions on the part of the INS have been leveled for years by children's advocates, human rights groups, and internal government reports. A 1985 class-action suit, Flores v. Reno, challenged, among other things, the often lengthy terms and harsh conditions of minors' confinement; its settlement in 1997 after 12 circuitous years of appeals that went all the way to the Supreme Court established national guidelines, requiring, for instance, that children be detained in the least restrictive settings possible.

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