Kids in Captivity

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

Mohamed Boukrage has no relatives to claim him. Orphaned at age 10 in his native Algeria when a car bomb blew up his parents and sister, he says he went to live with an aunt who threw him out, concerned that his father's reputation as a "traitor" for dealing with French businessmen would harm her own family's standing. So Mohamed stowed away on a boat to France, then made his way to Italy, where, for about four years, he picked up menial jobs and squatted in abandoned buildings. In October 2000 he joined some other workers on a boat he thought was going to Canada, but he was snagged by the INS when it docked in Newark. They took him right to Dr. Trager's office at the airport, where he was pronounced to be at least 18 years old; Mohamed says he was 16.

In May an immigration judge rejected Mohamed's asylum claim, saying that his story lacked convincing detail. His pro bono lawyer, Erin Corcoran of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, appealed, noting that Mohamed was only eight or nine when his family was killed: How much detail could he be expected to remember? Corcoran's final request for reconsideration was denied in January.

All the while, he has been held in an adult INS detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the fluorescent-lit former warehouse near Newark Airport, where he told his story from a cold visitor's room in late January. He passes the interminable time sitting in his dorm reading the Koran, he said. He gets an hour's exercise each day in an enclosed courtyard, so he has not been outdoors in almost a year and a half. Acne runs rampant over his dimpled cheeks.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mohamed said he'd like to learn English, but unlike the juvenile shelters, the adult detention centers don't offer any classes. His vocabulary is limited to the phrases he hears from guards: "Get in line." "Do what I tell you." "No talking."

When he is perceived to have broken a rule—like when he got into a fight he says started when a larger, older detainee made a sexual advance—he is sent to solitary confinement, where he is denied the meager communal privileges of exercise and prayer.

According to a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Alice Kross Frankel, Mohamed is "suffering from both depression and traumatic stress reactions" that are exacerbated by his imprisonment and "altogether inappropriate placement." He was wetting his bed when he first arrived at Elizabeth. He still has nightmares. Dr. Frankel recommended Mohamed's prompt release to the nonprofit youth home Covenant House, which has agreed to take him in.

Meanwhile, Corcoran is racing against the clock to try to win the only relief left: "special immigrant juvenile status," a sort of junior green card for youngsters who are abandoned, abused, or neglected. But even to be considered for this status, Mohamed has first to be recognized as a juvenile, so Latham and Watkins lawyers are preparing a federal suit claiming that the unreliable age determination test violates Mohamed's due process. A hearing is likely later this week.

If they prevail, the INS will have to let Mohamed's case be heard at family court, which has jurisdiction over who qualifies for this special status. But even if family court says yes, the INS has been known to take so long to process such claims that the young immigrants "age out"—that is, they turn 21 and become ineligible before they can secure the benefit. Mohamed isn't thinking about these legalistic twists. But he is thinking about the future. "I'm still young and can be educated," he said, expressing an interest in architecture. He added, "And I want a place to belong to."

Research assistance: Xiaoqing Rong

This is the second of an ongoing series investigating the INS.

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