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Report raps INS detention of children

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tucson, Ariz.

An international human rights group is accusing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of mistreating hundreds of children, some as young as 8, violating international law and the INS's own regulations.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch compiled a 116-page report -- "Slipping through the Cracks: Unaccompanied Children Detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service" -- after interviewing children who had been detained in Los Angeles County, Calif., and Coolidge, Ariz.

Released April 9, the report paints a grim picture of an isolated Arizona facility with "prison-like conditions" where children are detained who lack even a vague grasp of the system that may deport them if they cannot make a case for remaining in the United States.

The report seems to raise anew a concern of INS watchers over the years who have warned, particularly in the case of children, against agencies' having the dual -- and often conflicting -- roles of enforcing laws and acting as caretaker.

INS officials, say the report, "forget their role as service providers and structure their professional identities around their role as law enforcement agencies. Other nations have dealt with this conflict of interest by separating the care-taking agency from the agency charged with the prosecution of minors."

The report cites "multiple, repeated and persistent violations" by the staff of Southwest Key, a private, nonprofit Texas-based company that runs the 48-bed Coolidge facility for the INS. Company officials have flatly denied the charges.

The report cites numerous examples of Southwest Key's alleged failure to inform minors of their legal rights; frustrating children in their efforts to telephone family members and lawyers; and denying them opportunities for worship as well as sufficient time for recreation.

Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they were "treated differently" if they contacted attorneys. Many children said they had never seen a list of free legal aid sources, which Southwest Key staff are legally obligated to present. One child didn't even know what an attorney was.

The report also said no arrangement is made for regular visits from clergy. The worship area amounts to a "tucked away" and "uninviting" outside altar next to an 8-foot metal fence. The report also describes situations in which children lack needed information in their own languages and an arbitrary system of meting out privileges and punishments.

About two-thirds of the detainees are from South and Central America; up to a third are from China. Most come to the United States seeking reunification with family members. Others seek work to aid family members in their home countries. Still others are fleeing political strife.

Many of the children are smuggled into the country for a price.

Southwest Key officials who spoke with NCR disagreed vehemently with the report.

"It's bogus," said director Ramona Ortega-Liston. She described a professional staff devoted to creating a loving and healthy environment for the children.

Furthermore, since the facility opened in February 1996, 80 percent of detainees have been reunited with their families -- in an average of 20 days, she said.

But according to attorneys with the Tucson Ecumenical Council Legal Aid -- TECLA -- office, 20 days in detention is too long for children, many of whom are traumatized from the journey to the United States or by persecution in their home countries. TECLA claims that since 1980, it has reunited over 1,200 children with their families in an average of one to three days.

One year ago, Southwest Key officials told TECLA it could no longer give free legal orientations to the children. Officials have also actively discouraged children from contacting the TECLA office and client-attorney conversations have often been monitored, said Keith Schaeffer, TECLA director of development, who echoed Human Rights Watch findings.

TECLA discussed its concerns at an April 20 meeting with representatives of Congressman Ed Pastor, D-Ariz. Congressional aides promised to look into the matter, Schaeffer said.

An INS official who spoke with NCR said that if TECLA "submits a written proposal" about its work with the children, it will reconsider allowing legal orientations.

"As far as we're concerned, the matter is still on the table," said Russell Ahr, special assistant for public affairs at the INS Phoenix district.

Ahr said it only made sense that an agency contracted by the INS exercise "complete control" over every aspect of detention -- including the type of legal information children receive -- until the day of release. He cited issues of INS accountability and the juveniles' "privacy" as reasons that the facility was encouraged to deny permission for further contact between the children and TECLA representatives.

The report charges that "the Arizona facility uses the laudable goal of family reunification for an illegitimate purpose: that of preventing children from getting legal representation."

If they are to pursue their legal options or challenge conditions of detention, children must have access to counsel. Even if a child is released to family members, he or she is required to attend an immigration hearing.

The burden is on the government to prove that a child is deportable. The child's attorney can argue that it is in the best interest of the child to stay in the United States with a parent or other relative with protected legal status. A child might also qualify for political asylum because of a well-founded fear of persecution upon returning to his or her homeland.

Ortega-Liston said that every child's legal rights are respected.

She said that upon entering the facility, children are told they have the right to an attorney and are given a list of places where free legal aid can be obtained.

Furthermore, each child is guaranteed a court-appointed attorney at his or her deportation hearing. "It's the law," she said.

It may be the law, but "the system isn't working," said Helen Gonzales, an attorney with TECLA.

Pro-bono attorneys often receive little advance warning of a hearing, and they often are forced to assess a number of cases shortly before going into the courtroom. The circumstances do not allow for proper assessment of each case -- particularly a complex political asylum claim, Gonzales said.

Mark Franken, director for refugee programs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirmed that its New York office works with the Coolidge facility. But "by government policy," its reunification work with the INS is limited to Chinese children.

When asked if his office monitors INS facilities, Franken said, "We [the bishops] question even the validity of detention for children. We ... would like to see foster care," and other arrangements for children. "The bishops are very interested in the treatment of [immigrant] children," he said. "They are among the most vulnerable."

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997