EL PASO, TEXAS — A dozen boys in shorts and T-shirts are sprawled out over a carpeted floor, offering varying degrees of effort as a cajoling instructor leads them in leg lifts.
The scene is reminiscent of a gym class - except that the teacher's good-natured entreaties are in Spanish. The boys are all immigrants from Latin America who entered the United States illegally.
To some observers, the gym class is evidence of how the situation of apprehended minors has improved.
But for many human rights advocates, the predicament of hundreds of immigrant children detained across the US raises concerns about due process and prompt resolution of family-reunification petitions. And those concerns are rising in light of the country's anti-immigrant mood. The stated goal of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is to double the number of deportations this year.
"You find kids who are languishing in some facility because they don't have legal representation, but then there are also cases of kids who have legitimate asylum claims but that aren't investigated or discovered soon enough, and they're just deported," says Lee Tucker, an Arizona lawyer. "The system as it is now isn't working."
Ten years ago, migrant children detained for illegally entering the US regularly encountered conditions that did not meet internationally accepted standards for detention of children. Minors were sometimes housed with adults, or isolated in barely human conditions. A 1987 settlement of a lawsuit brought against the INS went some distance in improving those conditions, some observers agree.
Yet even though INS recently announced a new settlement agreement to more closely meet the complaints of the original lawsuit, some critics such as New York's Human Rights Watch remain skeptical.
Ms. Tucker helped investigate and write an April report by the Children's Rights Project, an arm of Human Rights Watch, criticizing the US system for its handling of detained foreign children. The report calls into question the INS's "conflicting roles" of detaining children and prosecuting their cases, while also acting as protector of their legal rights.
The US should follow the example of Canada and many European countries, the report says, where separate public agencies handle the distinct roles.
The Human Rights Watch report is based on visits with detained minors in facilities in California and Arizona. In California, investigators found immigrant children detained in facilities with criminal juveniles, an illegal practice. In Arizona, investigators initially had trouble gaining access to a privately run facility contracted by the INS. When access was finally gained, the rights advocates found troubling conditions.
Of the 15 children Tucker interviewed in the Arizona facility outside Tucson, seven had not been told of their right to an attorney, and several had been told they didn't need one. "One child simply didn't know what an attorney was," says Tucker. One problem is that minors under 16 can't be deported if they don't have an attorney or adult representative, "so they just languish," she says.
The El Paso facility where the gym class took place is run by Southwest Key, the same private organization that runs the Arizona facility. But at Casa El Paso - a shiny downtown building decorated with bright colors and the detained children's artwork - all children interviewed said they had legal representation and were satisfied with it.
The El Paso detainees reported having good food, a warm place to sleep, a chance to learn some English, and even outings to the local library - all factors rights advocates say should figure in detention of minors. But representatives who provide legal counsel say an increase in Casa El Paso's capacity last month from 32 to 48 minors will put serious restraints on their ability to fully represent each child.
"We're the only pro-bono game in town for these kids, so my concern is that each case will get even less attention than what we're struggling to provide now," says Marlene Perrotte, a representative for immigra- tion matters with El Paso's Las Americas Refugee Asylum Project.
Vincent Clausen, INS assistant district attorney for detention and deportation in El Paso, recognizes that Las Americas is "swamped" and says that could slow down the legal process.
Legal representatives like Ms. Perrotte say assuring undocumented immigrants' legal rights is not a public priority right now. Tucker encountered first-hand the public's opinion when she went on an Arizona radio program to discuss the Human Rights Watch report. "People who called in told me to get a real job, or they said that if I was so concerned about these kids, why didn't I take them all under my wing," she recalls.
Ms. Perrotte says INS should facilitate the release of children to family members in the US pending deportation hearings - a move she says would also be cost effective. INS official Clausen suggests that it is the very settlement agreement that legal rights groups sought that has taken away much of the discretion INS has for releasing children to families. The suit was brought after Asian minors were inadvertently released to sweat-shop employers.
"Reunification should be everyone's goal," Perrotte says, "but in the current atmosphere, the priority of INS is deportation." INS reported last month the US is deporting illegal foreigners at a record pace. Right now, it is on track to completing 93,000 deportations by September. In the case of minors, Clausen says family reunification is INS's priority. But "some people forget that reunification can mean either here, or with family back where the child came from," he adds.