Immigrant children detained by feds are lost in the system, lawsuit alleges

When you’re a child, one of the scariest things that could happen is being separated from your parents, even in a familiar place like the local supermarket or the mall. For most of us who have experienced feeling lost, this was only a momentary scare. But for thousands of immigrant children lost in the system, it is their daily, ongoing reality.

The best practice for unaccompanied minors found by immigration authorities is for them to be transferred into the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which offers the children legal help and, if possible, reunites them with their family members or a guardian.

But the best-case scenario doesn't always play out, according to the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center, which found that thousands of minors are held in adult facilities without appropriate legal representation. Under an opaque system, there is little transparency into who is in detention.

Not even the Heartland Alliance, which works with unaccompanied minors in its International Children's Center under an agreement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, knows what happens to some unaccompanied minors under immigration custody.

The Chicago-based nonprofit is filing a federal lawsuit to get information on the thousands of minors they say are being unlawfully detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We are disturbed by this evidence that [the department of homeland security] may have violated the law by detaining children in adult custody without access to counsel or appropriate services,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “We are demanding that the government provide further details to clarify the gravity of this problem.”

In 2010, more than 8,000 unaccompanied minors were picked up by immigration authorities, according to the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

A Freedom of Information Act request filed by Ruiz-Velasco and his colleagues found that, between 2008 and 2010, more than 2,000 immigrant children were detained between 4 and 450 days in county jails and private facilities that contracted with immigration authorities around the country.

But this is all the information that the request returned, leaving them with little understanding of the age of the minors or how many are illegally detained at any time, Ruiz-Velasco said. “We are really concerned about minors in [immigration] custody,” she said.

© Community Renewal Society 2012
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