Elian's peers treated differently

Most illegal-immigrant children face deportation and detention - not TV

He arrived in the United States illegally, without documents or parents. His journey was unimaginably risky for a child of his age, and today, his case for asylum is slowly working its way through the courts.

No, he isn't Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who has turned into a cause clbre for the Cuban exile community in Miami. He's Eber Sandoval Andino, an 11-year-old Honduran orphan with no living relatives in Honduras or the US, no familiarity with TV cameras, and only a slight legal chance of avoiding deportation from the US.

The fact that Eber is not a household name underscores a curious split in US immigration law that gives different treatment to refugees from Cuba than from anywhere else. It's a policy that has its roots in the cold war, and it's a policy that has drawn increasing scrutiny as the nation ponders the fate of young Elian Gonzalez and the thousands of other children who arrive each year.

"We have two immigration policies in this country: one for Cuba, and one for every other country," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that advocates lower immigration levels. "But the special case of Cuba is eroding." As Cuba ceases to be a military threat, "it's becoming more like everyone else."

Unaccompanied minors like Eber and Elian make up only a fraction of the 1.5 million INS apprehensions each year, but their cases are hardly unique. In 1990, the US Border Patrol arrested some 8,500 minors, more than 70 percent of them unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Thousands more likely cross without getting caught, blending in with the estimated 5 million illegal immigrants who reside in the US.

In theory, all children or adults caught entering the US illegally receive the same treatment. The vast majority are deported, with most Mexicans sent back within hours of apprehension. Exceptions are made for those who can prove they would be in physical danger in their country of origin, or who can prove they have close family members in the US.

But in practice, adults and children from some nations, such as Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua, get more favorable treatment than others, such as Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

At times, America's cold-war-influenced immigration law has had a never-never-land quality. In the early 1960s, for instance, during Operation Peter Pan, 14,000 Cuban children were brought to the US, leaving their parents behind.

"The US believed it was better to raise orphans in a noncommunist state than to let them be with their families in Cuba," says Rodolfo de la Garza, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. The irony of the Elian Gonzalez case, Dr. De la Garza says, is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is arguing for family unification, while the Cuban exile community is digging in its heels over ideology. "It's not clear to me that anyone other than the INS is trying to maintain this around the family issue," he says. "For everyone else, it's about politics."

The case of two Haitian children

Some critics note that the rationale for favoring Cuban refugees disappeared with the vestiges of the cold war itself. Others, particularly the Haitian community in Miami, say that such preference for Cubans is a form of racism.

In the past two weeks, a group of Haitian demonstrators has often marched through Miami to protest the treatment of 411 Haitians apprehended off the coast of Florida. During the deportation proceedings, two children were sent back to Port-au-Prince alone, while their mother remained in the US for medical treatment. The US said last week that the children would be able to reunite with her in Florida while her case is considered.

In any case, the legal process for undocumented children like Eber attempting to remain in the US is a difficult one.

In the quiet south Texas town of Los Fresnos, the International Education Services Center (IES) houses anywhere from a dozen to 40 youth detainees at a time, on a contract with the INS. Steven Lang, an attorney for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, says he has barely enough volunteers to provide even rudimentary legal advice to these detainees.

"Every single day, the INS is sending back 11- and 12- and 13-year-olds with no idea of whether they have family in the US, much less in their home countries, and without knowing ... what will happen to [them]," says Mr. Lang, who represents Eber and a half dozen other kids.

Among the youths he represents, some will seek voluntary departure to avoid being denied legal entry at a future time. Others, such as Eber, are seeking asylum on the grounds that forcible return will lead to a life on the streets, at the mercy of roving gangs and renegade police officers.

"The cases we have won are those where we show that these children are under extreme danger," says Lang. He pauses. "Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely concerned with Elian Gonzalez. But no one is out there protesting for the kid who is orphaned and forced to go back to the streets of Honduras."

Typical are the twin teenage brothers Jos Enrique and Jos Luis Oliva-Rosa. Abandoned by their parents, they lived in the homes of distant relatives. After years of abuse, the two boys ran away and made their way north to the US-Mexico border. Arrested by the INS shortly after crossing the Rio Grande, they were sent to the Los Fresnos orphanage, where they are claiming asylum based on their fear of persecution as street children.

But by having legal representation, Eber and the twins are atypical of most children in immigration cases.

Detention instead of Disney World

According to a 1998 study by Human Rights Watch, one-third of the 5,000 unaccompanied minors detained by the INS each year are held in jail-like detention centers, placed among juveniles accused of murder and rape. Some are subjected to strip-searches and handcuffed during transport, and few receive adequate information about their legal rights.

At the McAllen office of the Border Patrol, supervisory agent Ramiro De Anda says officers work hard to be "humane" and take extra steps to connect children with their relatives, when possible. Recently, he apprehended two Central American kids who were trying to join their parents in Dallas, who couldn't afford to file the paperwork to unify their family. "I made contact with the parents, and they came down to the Valley and took the kids with them to the Dallas area while their petitions go through the courts," says Officer De Anda. "That was a very unusual case, but we are humane enough that we can take those steps."

But at a time when the US is stepping up the presence of INS officials along the US-Mexico border, there appears to be little inclination in the US Congress to increase the flow of refugees into the US, children or not.

Indeed, Elian's case has produced some odd political positions. Conservatives such as Charles Borjas, who advocates restrictions on immigration, are urging that Elian be allowed to stay in the US. Many liberals who generally seek looser restrictions are calling for Elian to be returned to his father.

"Immigration does that," says Mr. Krikorian, himself a conservative who urges Elian's return to his father, despite his own feelings toward Cuba. "This subject messes up most political boundaries."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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