Advocates say foreign children who arrive alone are often denied legal assistance and detained with criminals.
By Associated Press
Published June 19, 2003
MIAMI - Children who arrive alone in the United States and seek to stay must wage an even more arduous battle than adults seeking asylum, advocacy groups charged Wednesday.
Representatives of Amnesty International said immigrant children who arrive unaccompanied often have no access to attorneys, are detained for long periods and sometimes share jails with convicted criminals.
"Imagine that you have committed no crime, but after you escape terrible abuses in your country and arrive in the U.S., you are . . . forced to appear before a judge to argue your case by yourself in a language you do not understand," said Ajamu Baraka, southern regional director of Amnesty International USA.
He told of a 7-year-old from Nigeria who was detained for 15 months. The girl, he said, did not hear her native language for nearly a year and was not released by the U.S. immigration officials into her American aunt's custody for several months after that.
"She was one of the lucky ones," Baraka said, because "she was not detained in a facility that housed juvenile offenders." The report said up to one-third of all unaccompanied children are kept in juvenile detention centers designed for young convicts.
It also said some are taken to Krome Detention Center, a prisonlike federal facility on the edge of the Everglades that is supposed to hold only male adults. The immigration advocates said the center uses possibly specious dental exams to classify as adults underage immigrants who lack papers.
Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the local office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said only adult males are kept at Krome. "We will not house any immigrant whose age is at question at Krome," she added.
The asylum process becomes especially difficult for Haitian children, Baraka said.
Several federal agencies have opposed the release of illegal Haitian immigrants on bail, arguing that it could trigger a wave of immigrants attempting to reach U.S. shores, overtaxing the Coast Guard, Border Patrol and other agencies and interfering with their antiterrorism activities.
The State Department has warned that Haiti has become a staging point for non-Haitians considered security threats, including Pakistanis and Palestinians, to enter the United States.
The plight of Haitian immigrants garnered national attention last year when a 50-foot boat carrying more than 200 men, women and children beached in Miami. The asylum seekers leapt off the boat and went ashore, where they were rounded up by authorities.
Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center said the Haitian children on that journey were kept in hotel rooms, and FIAC wasn't allowed to see them for 10 days, learning then that some had gone without fresh clothes or diapers.
The cases "were often expedited without (the children) even having the opportunity to first meet with an attorney," she said. "We're also told they were forced to sign papers they didn't understand."