Sep 6, 2011

Immigration Realities: Border-Crossing Kids Need more Assistance, say Child Advocates

A close look at another of the realities of undocumented immigration: minors, mostly teenagers who cross the border without adult relatives. 

The Cutting Edge News: "Last year, Border Patrol agents detained about 30,000 minors, more than half of them unaccompanied by parents. More than 80 percent of minors overall and unaccompanied were Mexican, and the rest were Central American, Chinese or nationals of other countries....

Most minors found crossing the border, regardless of nationality, appear to be trying to join parents or other relatives in the United States, or to find work, according to counselors and lawyers who aid these children. Many are found among adults who are not family members, and some have been pulled into criminal rings either as victims, participants, or both.

The debate over how to best handle minors once agents detain them goes back a couple of decades, and laws affecting them have changed incrementally. Because of concerns about keeping children in immigration detention with adults, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred responsibility for long-term custody of all unaccompanied minors to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

To ensure that children don’t remain in lockup, federal law requires that within 72 hours Border Patrol agents transfer children to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which supervises shelters and foster care for them. Minors are sheltered pending immigration hearings, temporary release to U.S. relatives or a return to home countries. 

... Because of Mexico’s proximity, however, Mexican minors can be sent back relatively quickly. If they agree to leave the United States voluntarily, they rarely reach U.S. shelters. They are taken to the border and released to the custody of Mexican social workers within a matter of hours.

Before the 2008 authorization, child-welfare advocates pressed Congress to address this discrepancy, arguing that too many Mexican minors were not being afforded the counseling available only in shelters that could help reveal criminal threats the youths might face. The Border Patrol screenings were designed as a step toward getting more information from Mexican minors and giving them a chance to disclose any fears. But advocates say the interviews by Border Patrol agents, in holding areas, lack the sensitivity that professionals trained in questioning children can provide."

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