Undocumented children entering the US alone must confront barriers that extend far beyond the border. If apprehended, they’re met with a sometimes-brutal detention period, followed by a trial under a legal system that treats them the same as apprehended adults, according to children’s rights advocates and recent reports by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office (OIG) and the Government Accountability Office.
OIG estimates that more than 10,000 unaccompanied and undocumented children will be detained this year, not counting children who are immediately deported upon contact with Homeland Security. Most travel from Mexico or Central America. Kids migrate alone for some of the same reasons that adults do: to reunite with family or to escape persecution. Many have experienced child-specific threats, like assault by youth gangs and recruitment for special roles in organized crime, according to Sarnata Reynolds, director of the Refugee Program at Amnesty International USA. A smaller percentage, driven by devastating poverty, come to find work.
Children apprehended at the border are taken to Border Patrol stations, frequently remaining in concrete cell blocks for days on end and sometimes being transferred repeatedly to different stations before being handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to Michelle Brane, director of the Detention and Asylum Program at the Women’s Commission, who has extensively investigated the treatment of unaccompanied children. Children are then placed in more permanent facilities to wait for their court dates.
“Generally before their placement, they’re held in bad conditions,” Brane told Truthout, noting that children are often not informed of their legal situation or what the future will bring. Although the OIG notes that 84 percent of children are placed within three days, some wait for much longer, especially during the Resettlement Office’s “high season,” when the system may see a backlog.
Children are eventually placed in foster care, shelters or “secure” or “staff-secure” facilities (the equivalents of juvenile detention centers). According to Brane’s findings, the secure facilities are overused: due to inadequate, hurried evaluations, children with behavior or mental problems that could be otherwise resolved are often sent to “secure” detention centers.
Abuse and neglect within secure facilities are not uncommon. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal agency, recently filed lawsuits against two detention centers that were committing “egregious abuses” against unaccompanied undocumented children, Legal Aid attorney Erica Schommer told Truthout.
Eight immigrant youths suing the Abraxas Hector Garza Treatment Center in San Antonio describe being beaten repeatedly, so severely that several required hospitalization. The abuse continued even after it was reported to their caretakers’ supervisors. In Nixon, Texas, ten detained young people filing a Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid lawsuit allege repeated assault and retaliation upon reporting the abuse. Of course, most abused detainees do not have access to pro bono lawyers and cannot hope to sue; much more often than not, their stories go untold.
According to a June report by the Government Accountability Office, child detainees are not immune to the neglect suffered by their adult counterparts, widely publicized earlier this month. The report cites the example of the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center in Washington State, where, despite federal mandates, “no medical screening was performed at admission and first aid kits were not available, as required.” The facility also ignored requirements to maintain minors’ medical records on site.
For the most part, however, the facilities’ violations are kept from the public eye - and the eye of the federal government doesn’t see much of them either, according to a recent OIG report noting that “interviews with Department of Unaccompanied Children’s Services central office officials indicate that little oversight of facilities occurs.” Federal officials aren’t required to meet with children when they visit the facilities, so direct feedback is next to nonexistent.
“Severe allegations of abuse have gone uninvestigated,” Reynolds told Truthout.
A lack of oversight is especially dangerous when it comes to children, she said, because they are much less likely than adults to speak out for themselves.
“Children are incredibly vulnerable - they’re completely subject to the adults in charge,” Reynolds said. “These kids are already feeling a lot of victimization. The last thing they need is for the detention process to subject them to further victimization.”
Moreover, documentation on health care provided to detained kids is almost universally sparse, due to either “poor record-keeping” or “failure to provide services,” according to the OIG. More than half of the children’s medical case files lack a required assessment of their needs, and all case files are missing at least one mandatory document describing care the children received.
Some minors’ situations are subject to particularly little oversight. Children whose “unaccompanied” status is questionable remain in Homeland Security custody after being apprehended, instead of being transferred to the Resettlement Office. Brane emphasizes the extraordinary absence of transparency when it comes to these kids, who may be detained indefinitely in prison-like facilities, invisible to the outside world.
“We don’t know who they are or where they are,” Brane said. “Most of them are kept in juvenile detention facilities meant for criminals. There’s so little transparency that we haven’t been able to speak to any of those children.”
The Legal Wall
While detained, unaccompanied children sit in waiting for their court date, which will follow a set of legal standards exactly mirroring standards for adult detainees. This means that, when it comes to demonstrating their eligibility for asylum in the US, the children themselves hold the burden of proof.
Seventy percent of the time, these children are not provided with legal representation, according to the Women’s Commission’s findings, which are backed up by a 2007 Congressional Research Service report. Often, the children are not even given the chance to consult with counsel beforehand to learn their rights and the legal standards on which their cases will be decided.
However, Reynolds noted, the government is backed up by attorneys. Thus, many times an immigration judge is deciding a case between government officials armed with lawyers and an unrepresented child who speaks no English.
Although non-English-speaking defendants are always provided with an interpreter, the translator often only interprets what the judge needs to hear to decide the case, according to Brane. Kids are often left wondering the definitions of most of the words spoken in the courtroom - a reality that is not only frightening for children, but also detrimental to their chances of providing a complete testimony that addresses the claims of the governmental representatives.
Qualifications for asylum are complicated, especially for a minor unfamiliar with the US legal system. Immigrants must clearly recount the risks they would face upon returning to their home country. Kids often don’t know how to articulate those dangers, according to Reynolds. For example, a child may know that he or she is being targeted by violent men, but may not understand that those men are members of a paramilitary group singling out the family based on political affiliations.
Plus, not knowing whether their testimonies will be kept confidential, children are often hesitant to speak, especially if they have been persecuted in their home country, Reynolds noted.
“Many have more than one fear, and may be afraid to talk about any of them,” she said. “They don’t understand what will happen to them if they tell their story.”
Maya Schenwar is an editor and reporter for Truthout.