Kids in Captivity

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

But for an adolescent like Jimmy, such benefits were outweighed by the loneliness, boredom, and persistent nightmares. Only since arriving at his aunt and uncle's has he been enjoying what most teenagers take for granted: enough time in a shower to rinse off the soap, pouring himself a glass of juice when he feels thirsty, being allowed to take a pen and paper into his room.

After all, these are kids. The restrictions of detention present special emotional hardships for teenagers. In eastern Washington State, for instance, INS kids are held outside Spokane at Martin Hall, a maximum-security juvenile prison with strict rules that apply equally to the delinquent citizen kids and the INS detainees: No more than five sheets of paper and two family photos in a cell, the handbook asserts. When going to a meal or recreation, it instructs, "come out of your room, close your door, stand by your door facing forward with your hands behind your back until asked to step into the middle of the hallway. . . . Do not talk to anyone."

A Jamaican teen who didn't want her name used spent a month and a half in the high-security wing at Berks. She reports she saw kids thrown and pinned to the ground by guards for the crime of lifting an arm. But what was worse for her was suffering the acute adolescent embarrassment of having to dispose of sanitary napkins in full sight of the boys because there were no trashbins in the bathrooms. In Miami, FIAC attorneys wanted to give a donated Christmas present of a jigsaw puzzle and art set to Alfredo while he was confined to the hotel room with nothing to do and no one who spoke his language. According to the INS, such items are "contraband." Alfredo got no gifts.

The underlying trouble, says Chris Nugent, director of a pro bono immigrant project at the American Bar Association, is that the INS regards these kids "as detainees first and as children second. That's what needs to be reversed."

Yet sometimes the INS doesn't recognize them as juveniles at all. Adults have narrower avenues of relief and face more severe detention conditions than those under 18, so undocumented migrants have a good motive for trying to pass as a minor. The INS says that it must be especially vigilant to keep adults out of shelters that house children, so when people give birth dates that seem doubtful, they are sent for the X-rays that show wisdom teeth growth and whether the ulna and radius bones have fused in the wrist. Advocates say the tests are unreliable and given far too much weight over documents, psychiatric evaluations, and other evidence in cases against young people who genuinely need help.

According to Dr. Robert Trager, the dentist with offices at JFK and LaGuardia airports who has conducted some 1500 such tests for the INS, "[Undocumented travelers] try every trick in the book to get in here, and you've got to feel sorry for them, but I can't let personal feelings get in the way of science." In at least 90 cases out of 100, he finds the patient to be lying, and he claims the tests have an accuracy rate of more than 96 percent.

But Dr. Herbert Frommer, director of radiology at the New York University College of Dentistry, says that "Dr. Trager's position has no scientific validity." In an affidavit, Dr. Frommer cites a "wide variation in the age at which third molars erupt in the mouth" because of differences in "race, gender, and ethnic origin," among other factors. Orthopedists regard the wrist-bone test as equally imprecise. Still, these tests are the best scientific tools the INS has in its effort to piece together what Kraushaar calls the "mosaic" of a person's identity. "The INS is responsible for making sure we know exactly who is seeking entry to the U.S. and verifying their ID includes age," she explains. "What if a terrorist who was 19 said he was 16 and an orphan and the story didn't check out, but we released him and he went and blew up a building? Would it be his attorney that would take the fall? I don't think so."

Thus, Huai Chun Zheng—or "Danny"—has been sitting in an adult jail in Georgia for more than two years. The INS X rays pegged him as over 18, though he claims he was only 15 when he was apprehended at a port in Savannah after spending a week under the deck of a ship from China. He applied for asylum, and as his case inched along, he whiled away what should have been vital years "mostly just sitting in my room all day." Between his fear of being returned to China and the noise of the more than 20 men in his dorm, he barely sleeps, he said by phone through an interpreter last week.

His asylum petition has been denied, and Danny has been issued a final order of deportation, but he is still holding out hope that, somehow, the INS will release him to his cousins in New York and that he'll be able to fulfill his dream of going to school. His lawyer, Rhonda Brownstein of the Southern Poverty Law Center, managed to track down a notarized birth certificate for Danny, but the INS doubts its authenticity because it lacks fingerprints. "Do your birth certificates in America have fingerprints?" Danny wants to know. Yet even by the birth certificate's count, Danny turned 18 last month, so the law that would permit him to be released to relatives no longer applies. To date, China has not produced the travel documents needed for his deportation, so Danny sits in limbo, waiting—but he's not sure for what.

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