Under Age and Alone, Immigrants See a Softer Side of Detention
New York Times 7/15/2009
By ANN FARMER
DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. — Jose was 14 when he left his home in Oaxaca, Mexico, and paid a smuggler $1,200 to sneak him across the border. He made it to Phoenix and started on a long and familiar odyssey as he scratched out a living, first picking oranges in Florida, then cooking in restaurants in Connecticut.
But his modest existence was upended in March after he was stopped for speeding in Connecticut and the police discovered that he did not have a driver’s license. Eventually, officials determined he was in the United States illegally, and he was taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. Because Jose told a judge he was 21, he was held in an adult detention center in Massachusetts.
After Jose’s brother, with the help of the Mexican government, was able to prove to immigration officials that Jose was just 17, he was transferred in April to a shelter for immigrant youths in Westchester County.
Jose’s case represents one of the thornier aspects of the immigration debate: how to treat the roughly 7,200 unaccompanied minors apprehended in the United States each year.
Jose, whose last name was withheld because of his age, was detained at the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, one of 41 facilities across the country contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services to hold unaccompanied minors until they are either allowed to remain in the United States or are deported. (Jose ultimately returned to Mexico voluntarily.)
Despite an alarm system and locks, conditions in the Tudor-style bungalow at the Children’s Village where young detainees live are a vast improvement, immigrants’ advocates say, over the federal detention centers where such unaccompanied minors used to be held.
The housing of young detainees in the same places as adults, often without access to education, proper medical care or translators, led to a class-action lawsuit in 2001. As a result, Congress in 2003 shifted responsibility for unaccompanied minors from immigration officials to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of Health and Human Services.
Besides separating minors from adults, the office has established standards for accommodating minors in less restrictive settings, while providing a variety of social services. Among other things, Homeland Security officers are required to take any unaccompanied minor they apprehend to a juvenile facility, usually within 24 hours.
The new procedures have created some tension between Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, which believes that law enforcement standards should apply equally to all illegal immigrants, no matter their ages.
The Justice Department ultimately determines if unaccompanied minors are allowed to stay, ruling on whether they qualify for special immigrant juvenile status because they have been abused, neglected or abandoned and need long-term foster care. Such status can lead to a green card, which permits permanent residence in the United States.
Some supporters of strict enforcement of immigration laws are critical of the juvenile green cards and say parents in other countries must be discouraged from sending their children to the United States illegally.
Detainees at Children’s Village spend their days in cheerful rooms painted in vibrant hues of pink and green and decorated with potted plants. On a recent visit, the smell of bacon being cooked by the staff wafted from the kitchen. “It’s almost like home,” Jose said in an interview before he went back to Mexico. When he was not exercising or on field trips on the woodsy 180-acre campus, he studied English, history and social studies.
“The rule of law doesn’t have to be meanspirited,” said Jeremy C. Kohomban, president and chief executive of Children’s Village. “If nothing else, the way we treat them inspires them about how we practice the rule of law.”
Founded in 1851 as a charity to provide shelter for orphaned and homeless children, Children’s Village started a coeducational facility for unaccompanied minors in 2004 in Queens and three years later opened a boys-only residence in Dobbs Ferry, where it has other programs for youngsters.
When illegal immigrant youths arrive. they are often disoriented and frightened, Children’s Village officials said. Some have been scooped up during workplace raids, while others have been picked up along the Mexican border and taken north because they have relatives in New York who may sponsor them while their future is sorted out.
“I have seen terrible traumas,” said Steven Alba, who manages the program for unaccompanied minors at Children’s Village, recalling a boy whose leg was so badly burned as he crossed the border in a vehicle that he required a skin graft.
“We feed them immediately,” Mr. Alba said. They are also given clothes and toiletries, undergo a medical evaluation and watch a video explaining their legal rights. A social worker collects phone numbers of any family members. “We start putting the puzzle together about the child and his options,” Mr. Alba said.
Abigail Cushing, a lawyer with Catholic Charities who works with the detainees at Children’s Village, said, “Kids need to be treated humanely regardless of their immigrant status in the U.S.”
One of the youngsters at Children’s Village, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, said he came to the United States when he was 13 to escape family abuse.
His illegal status was uncovered in April after the police in the western New York community of Jamestown came to his aid when he was being beaten by strangers. He told the authorities that he was over 18, which led to his being held in a detention center in Pennsylvania where he was given a blanket and slept on a concrete block.
“Each place they brought me, they just asked me questions and I just answered them,” said the teenager, whose name was withheld because of the abuse accusations involving his family. “I thought maybe they would let me go.”
After establishing his true age, he was sent to Children’s Village. “I realized when I came here that I was going to be better,” he said, though he added, “The days are sad because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Jose said he decided not to press his case, in part because if he lost he knew it would make it even harder for him to return to the United States legally. Besides, he said, “I miss my mom and my grandmom.”
“What I would tell other Mexican kids is that life is hard in the U.S.,” he added. “You don’t have your mother and father to support you. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. When you’re old enough to know what you’re doing, you can come. But some kids don’t want to listen.”