Kenia Cruz didn’t get any trips to Disney World when, at 14, she arrived in the United States after a long trek from Honduras. No politicians gave her any puppies, and no clout-and-cash-bearing lobby groups crusaded to keep her here. Instead, Cruz blended into the blur of Los Angeles until la Migra caught up with her and left her languishing in detention for 10 months. “They just forgot about me,” says Cruz, who was released from L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall in October. “They put me in there in January, they interviewed me in March, and they never called me again until September. I didn’t know if I would ever get to leave.”
The case of Elián González, the six-year-old Cuban boy fished out of the waters off Florida on Thanksgiving day after his mother and stepfather drowned, remains front-page news as anti-Castro ideologues continue to exploit the traumatized boy to fan the embers of the Cold War. Meanwhile, out of the eye of public scrutiny, thousands of youngsters from all over the world contend with a bewildering and harsh immigration system. They are called not Elián, but alien. In addition to highlighting the extraordinary exception immigration policy makes for Cubans—any who touch down in the U.S. are automatically granted legal status—the manipulation of Elián González underscores the plight of immigrant minors who have no politically powerful relatives showering them with consumer goods, no loving father waiting back home, no grandmothers pleading in Washington.
“The system would be better off if the INS poured the same kind of energy into every minor’s case as it did into Elián González’s,” says Angela Lloyd, director of legal services at Newark’s branch of Covenant House, the nonprofit youth shelter. “I’d love for the INS to go to Sierra Leone and interview the parents of one of my clients who’s from there. They’d see that those parents are gone and that these kids are the forgotten.”
For obvious reasons, it is impossible to know how many undocumented minors live in the U.S. The Immigration and Naturalization Service reports having detained roughly 5300 children (many of them asylum seekers) and deported almost 880 in fiscal year ’98.
Like adults, kids come to the States for a range of often overlapping reasons—fleeing war, poverty, persecution, domestic violence; seeking education, economic improvement, freedom of expression and association. Others, of course, come because their parents bring them—or send them—or because they’re sold to “snakeheads” who trap them in indentured servitude. And the INS, as with adults, intercepts them in various ways. Some are caught at airports or border crossings; others are turned over to the INS when they have some run-in with a state agency like the police.
That’s what happened to Kenia Cruz, now 18, who had been living with her aunt and pulling good grades at school, but, as she tells it, got mixed up with some of the wrong kids. One accused her of selling drugs—which she denies—and what might have been a brief knuckle-rapping and bout of community service turned into her 10-month ordeal as an INS administrative detainee.
Released to her aunt, after the intervention of attorneys from Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), she is currently pursuing an asylum claim based on a brutal experience with violence back home.
Asylum cases can be won—though the INS couldn’t provide any percentages—in a process, advocates say, that has become somewhat more sensitive in the past year, since the INS issued special guidelines for children in such proceedings. Much is still lacking, though, notes Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, which was instrumental in getting the INS to draft the provisions: “Unaccompanied kids should have a guardian appointed to them to help them through a process that can be scary and confusing, especially for children who have been through trauma.”
If there’s no claim of asylum, some minors can apply for a “special juvenile immigration visa,” which is reserved for kids who truly have no one. But to garner this rare junior green card, the applicant has to get a ruling from family court asserting that such a course is truly in the child’s best interest, and then bring it to immigration court. Fat chance, if they don’t have lawyers—and according to Human Rights Watch, only 11 percent of detained minors do, despite righteous efforts by pro bono advocates all over the country. Even if kids do find counsel, they face a back-and-forth between two bureaucracies. And that, explains Alicia Triche, managing attorney at CLINIC’s L.A. office, can take six months to a year. In the meantime, she says, “essentially, the kids sit in jail.” Though the INS places some minors in foster care, the majority are sent straight to detention. (The virtue of this policy, the INS explains, is that it prevents flight risks, protects society from kids who pose a danger, and shelters some children—particularly Chinese—from capture by smuggling rings.)
There are three adult INS detention centers in the New York City area, but none is authorized to hold minors. Kids apprehended locally are usually taken to a low-security shelter at Berks County Youth Center in Pennsylvania. The BCYC also includes a nearby high-security lockup for nonimmigrant minors charged with or convicted of crimes. The proximity comes in handy: When the 45-bed shelter for INS detainees is full, or when kids there are accused of acting up—often, say advocates, simply because they don’t understand enough English to follow a guard’s orders—they are moved into the razor-wired corrections facility and assigned to concrete cells that are empty, save for a bed and a Bible. Those with the bad luck to get nabbed by the INS far from any of the seven low-security shelters across the country suffer a similar fate; that happened to a 15-year-old Chinese girl who spent seven months in a juvenile jail in Oregon.
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.”