Kids in Captivity

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

But a report this past September by the Office of the Inspector General found that the INS was placing too many kids in high-security juvenile prisons, needlessly using restraints on them, and in other ways failing to live up to the 1997 settlement. While the report noted "significant progress," it found persistent problems that could have "serious consequences for the well-being of the juveniles." Of the 4136 unaccompanied minors held for more than 72 hours in fiscal year 2000, the report detailed, more than a third did at least some portion of their detention in "secure" facilities—that is, in prisons. Having committed no offense other than to seek refuge in the U.S., they were locked in behind bars and razor-wire fences, under the control of guards trained to take charge of criminals.

Now, as the INS considers an agency-wide structural overhaul, separating its service and enforcement branches, plans to completely revamp its juvenile department are on the table at last. In a speech in early February, INS commissioner James Ziglar asserted, "We need to do better protecting unaccompanied minors," a sentiment advocates regarded as sincere, if a massive understatement. Ziglar announced the creation of a special Office of Juvenile Affairs that will report directly to him instead of being housed in the division of detention and deportation.

The bill scheduled for hearings Thursday, the Unaccompanied Minor Protection Act, introduced by California Democrat Diane Feinstein, is far tougher. First, it would guarantee children attorneys and guardians. What's more, it would place the care of these kids in a new office outside the INS, staffed by child welfare professionals. Indeed, some advocates wonder whether Ziglar's administrative reform is a preemptive dodge to keep undocumented children in the INS's control.

Supporters of the Feinstein legislation say it goes a long way toward resolving what they have long regarded as a damaging conflict of interest in the agency: "The INS is both prosecutor and protector," explains Wendy Young of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "They have custody of the children and must serve their best interests; at the same time it is their job to deport them." The INS's Kraushaar rejects this logic: "We don't have an interest in any of the outcomes other than to make sure the juvenile enjoys the full consideration under the law and arrives in a timely fashion for his or her hearings."

Official policy, perhaps. But kids don't see it that way. Those who spoke to the Voicemight have expressed appreciation for "one nice guard" or "a lady who helped me in the shelter," but all said they felt intimidated, punished, confused, and upset, or "treated like a criminal." And there's little claim of neutrality from INS employees in the field. A deportation officer in the mid-Atlantic region, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed pride in being able to "help America keep liars who aren't supposed to be here out of the country." At JFK airport, the dentist who administers a controversial X-ray test to determine the age of those it doesn't believe to be under 18 regards himself as defending the border against "drug dealers, human traffickers, and terrorists." He relishes what he calls "the forensic chess game. People come in with false documents, and I have the dental X rays to checkmate them."

While some migrants may indeed come under false pretenses, they can also get caught up as pawns in a larger game. The supervisor of the juvenile division in Florida, for instance, brazenly told a judge at a hearing in Alfredo's case two weeks ago that he would not release the boy to any foster care programs because he was waiting for Alfredo's brother, living illegally in the U.S., to come claim him and be put into deportation proceedings himself.

In a more alarming example, zealous INS officers recently deported 13-year-old Isau Flores-Portillo, a street kid from Honduras, even though his asylum appeal was still pending. Though the INS won't comment on specific cases, attorneys for Isau believe he faced torture or even death back home. They cite the reputation of Central American police for clearing the streets of homeless kids by simply murdering them in a process known as limpieza social—social cleansing. According to a U.S. State Department human rights report, in 2000, "Honduran security forces were suspected of an estimated 200 extrajudicial killings, many involving persons under 18." The INS has moved to dismiss Isau's asylum case because the applicant is no longer in the country.

Jimmy was luckier. During his 18 months in detention, his case was picked up by a special pro bono project at the tony D.C. firm Latham and Watkins, which has an attorney who speaks Punjabi. The lawyers managed to get affidavits from neighbors in his village who testified to the relentless abuse Jimmy suffered at the hands of his stepmother, and in December, his asylum request was granted. Not only is the INS appealing the decision, it wanted to keep Jimmy in detention during the appeals process. Attorneys won his release earlier this month.

From his new home in California, Jimmy said he would have run away from home no matter what, but, he added, "I would live on the streets in India rather than go through detention again." And that from a child who spent the bulk of his time in Berks County Youth Center in rural Pennsylvania, a low-security shelter without bars or barbed wire, where there are classes each day and soccer games. (Still, kids held there say they are threatened with being moved to the high-security prison wing down the road if they misbehave.)

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