INS Child-Detention Centers For Illegals Stir Controversy

WHEN Pedro was 13 years old, he was forcibly recruited into the Nicaraguan Army. After refusing to fight, he says he was beaten, tortured, and imprisoned in a tree trunk filled with human excrement.

After several attempts, in April 1994, at age 17, Pedro (not his real name) walked across the US border at Nogales, Ariz., but was quickly arrested by the Border Patrol.

While arrests of undocumented minors seeking political asylum in the United States are up nationwide, southern Arizona has experienced record increases in illegal entries because of US Border Patrol crackdowns in Texas and California.

In response, the Immigration and Naturalization Service plans in August to open a child-detention center in Tucson, Ariz., and soon thereafter, another in El Paso, Texas. But the detention centers are creating controversy among refugee advocates. They say the INS may use the extra space to detain children for long periods of time - at taxpayers' expense - while family or foster parents could be caring for them instead.

Currently, the INS has a shortage of beds for unaccompanied children and relies on a variety of church and refugee-resettlement groups to oversee their care.

''Most of these children are being cared for at no expense to the taxpayer,'' says Laurie Melrood, who serves on the board of the Tucson Ecumenical Council Legal Assistance. ''So why is the INS coming in with this burdensome and expensive solution to a problem that doesn't exist?''

But immigration officials counter that the shelters are needed, especially in light of recent court rulings that require the INS to house undocumented minors in ''open'' settings - no fences or barbed wire - and away from unrelated adults or criminal juveniles. The INS also is required to provide undocumented minors with education, counseling, and health care.

In Tucson, refugee advocates, who work to reunite these children with their families or place them in foster homes, say they cared for 470 undocumented minors last year, up 250 percent from 1993.

During the first half of this year, INS agents arrested another 215 unaccompanied minors - including 26 Ecuadorans fleeing the border war with Peru - in southern Arizona and turned them over to refugee advocates.

Most of these children come from Central and South America, but some are from as far away as India and China. They come alone, or with smugglers who their parents hire for as much as $7,000. Like Pedro, some are fleeing forced conscription or political violence. Others come to join family already in the US.

Unlike Mexican children, who are generally sent back across the line immediately, minors from more distant countries tend to remain in the US while their cases are being decided. Some have grounds for political asylum claims. (Pedro was eventually granted political asylum and lives with his brother here.)

Others may be eligible for legal status through family members, or if they can convince a judge that they would suffer ''extreme hardship'' if deported.

WHILE refugee advocates say they are pleased that the INS is taking steps to comply with court rulings, they worry that, now that the government has a place to detain minors, it may use them as ''bait'' to catch parents living in the US illegally.

''Most of the families do have legal status, but some may be reluctant to come forward if they think they're going to be investigated,'' says Marcy Janes, an immigration attorney here.

Ms. Janes says she and others would refuse to investigate the legal status of the children's families.

INS officials insist they plan to continue to work with refugee resettlement groups to release children to their families or to foster parents.

''We may be working with them more than ever,'' says Angel Lopez, a detention officer with the Border Patrol in Tucson. Mr. Lopez says he anticipates the proposed 32- to 48-bed Tucson shelter may also receive children from out of state.

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