Immigration remains a divisive issue in the USA, with massive increases in raids by the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) on undocumented migrants, leading to half a million people detained each year, the fastest growing prison population in the USA, the removal of almost 350,000 in the past 12 months alone, and a growing climate of fear in migrant communities.
Last month the International Detention Coalition had the opportunity to meet groups working with immigration detainees in Florida, USA, including the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center (FIAC) and the Haitian Women’s Commission, to visit BoysTown, a detention centre for unaccompanied minors (UAMs), to meet detained children and attend a hearing for UAMs at the Department of Justice Executive Office of Immigrant Review. A range of concerns were noted following the visit, with the primary areas of concern for children outlined below:
Children affected by interior raids:
ICE has doubled the number of interior raids in Florida since 2006, with
a dramatic increase in cases of both parents being detained and children being separated from their families. In many cases ICE officers, untrained in child welfare, are making ad-hoc and uninformed decisions on where the child will reside, often not taking into account the child’s welfare or best interest. In these cases, parental rights may be terminated because of their detention and while the State may take custody of the child, due to insufficient foster care arrangements, children are often left in inappropriate environments, with family friends or relatives. Concern for the child’s health, welfare and the psychological impact of separation from the family were noted, together with the trauma of the raid experience, which in some cases has involved police and the use of guns and force.
ICE’s focus has increasingly been solely on law enforcement, not on a broader need, risk or best interest assessments of the child. The case of a mother detained and separated from her 7 month-old baby was noted.
Detained unaccompanied minors:
Undocumented unaccompanied minors (UAMs) are detained in the US often after crossing the US–Mexican border, or after being caught in ICE interior raids. There are 400 UAM cases detained each year in Miami alone and around 8,000 UAMs detained nationally, mostly in Texas and Arizona. The average age is 15-17 years with many children from Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere in Central America.
While there have been significant changes in the treatment and care of UAMs since 2002, and the introduction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) who are now responsible for UAMs, ongoing concerns remain, including:
· In Miami, UAMs detained by ICE, are then handed over to ORR, who detain the child in 1 of 3 detention centres or shelters in Miami. The responsibility for running these centres is sub-contracted.
· Children who have not committed any crime may also be in placed in secure and staff-secure facilities, normally used for criminal juvenile detention cases.
· While welfare and healthcare for UAMs have improved since the introduction of ORR, there were cases noted of children not receiving adequate health or welfare assistance and high levels of isolation, psychological trauma and mental health issues, including self-harm attempts.
· Information disclosed by children who have received medical care and counseling may be given to ICE and may be used against them in their legal case to remain in the country.
· The average time of detention is 50 days, with cases of up to 2 years. The IDC met a boy who had been detained for more than 3 years since the age of 14, moved between 5 detention centres in 4 states, including a juvenile criminal centre where he experienced assault from a guard, with extended periods without legal counsel.
· While ORR are required in the first instance to look for alternative arrangements for UAMs, this often does not occur, particularly with release options limited to the few foster-care places available or in finding a sponsor willing to take on guardianship. Relatives often won’t come forward or visit, as they fear detention and deportation, placing children under high pressure not to disclose or contact their undocumented family members.
· About 60% of children do get reunitied, and there is some foster-care for very young children, usually under 12 years of age, however the youngest child the IDC observed was a 6 year old boy on his own, and a 5 years old girl detained in BoysTown, together with her older sister.
· While FIAC represent all UAM cases in the South Florida area, UAM children in the USA are not appointed council, with an estimated 50- 70% of UAM children not represented throughout the country.
· A positive development following FIAC’s advocacy has been the assignment of one judge to work on UAM cases in Miami, giving greater consistency in decision-making and expertise of the judiciary.
US law states that children must be escorted during deportations, and not removed together with adults, and females escorted only by females, however there have been numerous reports that this does not always occur, with children being left in the country of return with limited support and handovers to child authorities in UAM cases not occurring.
There have been concerns raised that families are being separated during the deportation process, pregnant women who have been raided, detained, chained and subsequently deported and mothers not knowing where their children were deported to.
There were also reports of Haitian children and families being deported to disaster prone areas in the month of December during the visit.
Groups stated that changes to immigration legislation in 1996 affecting the rights of undocumented migrants following the Oklahoma bombings remain a major concern for advocacy groups, together with the increased enforcement culture of DHS and ICE and the post 9/11 environment of the war against terrorism being enmeshed with immigration issues.
A lack of uniformity and consistency in the implementation of immigration detention and deportation practice across the country was noted, including the use of family detention centers and alternatives such as electronic tagging and reporting requirements.
With no consistent national independent monitoring of places of detention, no legally binding guidelines on immigration detention standards and an increase in the privatization of immigration detention, concerns about detention conditions and the rights of people in detention are increasing. It was particularly noted that there has been an increase in the number of deaths in custody and cases of negligence in the provision of healthcare and wrongful detention by ICE officers.
For more details on detained unaccompanied minors in the US, see visit Florida Immigration Advocacy Center’s website:http://www.fiacfla.org or the latest report by the Centre for Public Policy Priorities: A child alone and without papers: http://www.cppp.org/repatriation/Two_Pager_English.pdf
Florida Immigration Advocacy Centre (FIAC) and IDC Steering Committee members in the US, such as Detention Watch Network, Refugee Council of the USA, Human Rights First, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Women’s Refugee Commission, Human Rights Watch and others have called upon President Obama to review immigration policy, including the use of detention and the treatment of children. To see their statements visit:
Florida Immigration Advocacy Center : http://www.fiacfla.org/pressreleases.php#143
Detention Watch Network http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/dwnpressrelease5.15.08http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/
Human Rights First http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/asy/2008/alert/364/index.htm
Refugee Council USA http://www.rcusa.org/uploads/pdfs/RCUSA%20Briefing%20Book%2012-1-2008.pdf
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Women’s Refugee Commission
Human Rights Watch