`Illegal' kids in border limbo. US Immigration Service detention facilities and policies under fire
LUIS ESTRADA fled El Salvador to avoid the tumult of war and to be reunited with his mother in the United States for the first time in eight years. Instead of leading a happily-ever-after existence in ``el norte,'' however, the slight 16-year-old was arrested while slipping across the US-Mexican border - and spent the next 17 days in detention. Luis (not his real name) is one of at least 100 alien youngsters who are detained at any given time by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service for illegally entering the country. They are the source of an enduring dispute between the federal agency and immigrant-rights groups over conditions in the detention facilities and how children should be handled.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics contend that many of the centers run by the INS or by contractors for the agency carry out practices - such as putting children into quarters with adults - not allowed under state and federal standards for most juvenile lockups.
At the same time, the rights groups disagree with an INS policy, adhered to with different strictness in different parts of the country, which provides that detained minors may only be released to parents or legal guardians while awaiting deportation hearings.
The critics contend that by not turning the young detainees over to relatives or interested third parties such as religious groups, the INS unnecessarily forces many of the children to languish in detention centers for weeks and even months.
INS officials counter that the facilities are properly run, and minors are detained only for brief periods. They contend that the agency's selective-release policy protects the best interests of the children. ``The question is protection of the children,'' says Bill Odencrantz, counsel for the Western regional office of the INS. ``We cannot just release a four-year-old to any person who walks in the door and says, `I want the kid.'''
But INS officials concede that detaining children who have entered the US illegally is a delicate issue and one that has become a growing problem in recent years. As the volume of illegals coming across the border reached unprecedented proportions in the mid-1980s, the number of children trekking north - mostly from Mexico and Central America - likewise increased.
Since passage last fall of the US Immigration Reform and Control Act, the number of minors arrested has declined, as have detentions of aliens in general. In the Western region, where most of the minors are detained, INS officials say 60 to 75 children are in custody on any given day, vs. 125 last fall. Most of the rest are in facilities in Texas.
``It is a serious problem,'' says Alice Bussiere of the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco. ``I think it has been overlooked because it is so easy to forget.''
A chief concern of critics is the practice of turning over minors, with few exceptions, only to parents and court-appointed guardians. Although the policy has been adopted by the INS nationwide, local administrators have leeway in how they carry out the stricture. It has been most rigidly adhered to in the Western region, INS officials say, where the policy was initiated.
Officials in the Western office, which is headed by Harold Ezell, say they have a ``moral responsibility'' not to release children to just any person or group that comes in. At the same time, there is concern of legal liability if something should happen to a minor while in the custody of someone other than a parent or legal guardian, who, the INS says, are best equipped to care for the children and guarantee their appearance at deportation hearings.