After making his way north from his native Guatemala, a 15-year-old kid arrived at the US-Mexico border where he was detained by Customs and Border Patrol agents.
He was sent to an immigration detention center in Yolo County, near Sacramento, for a year without an explanation for the long incarceration. Nor did the youth get a hearing before a judge to determine whether he posed any threats to the country, or represented a flight risk if turned over to his mother.
Every two weeks, his mother — a Los Angeles resident — would drive, starting at 3 a.m., with her three other kids to go spend a few hours with her son before returning home around 11 p.m.
“He was harmless, but he had no ability to contest the reasons for his detention. Finally, they released him without the government stating why he had to stay detained that long,” explained Carlos Holguin, general counsel for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law (CHRCL), who worked on the case.
The Guatemalan boy’s situation is not unusual.
Last November, 7,844 unaccompanied minors were in some type of government detention. Those under 18 who are caught by the Border Patrol are placed under the care of the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and are housed in group homes and shelters. Those who admit to gang involvement (whether coerced or of their own volition) are sent to juvenile halls while they await processing — regardless if that involvement is minor or not.
Lucky ones may end up detained for only one or two months before being turned over to parents, family members or legal guardians. There are others who spend up to one year or more without the government making a decision on their detainment or temporary freedom while they deal with their immigration case.
Keeping them in custody is not only unjust, but also expensive. According to Holguin, it costs the government about $300 a day to keep a kid in custody. Having them with their parent or a family member, or placing an electronic monitoring device on them can cost as little as 17 cents to $17 a day.
“It’s not to the taxpayer’s cost benefit to not release a kid to a parent,” Holguin told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.
Since 2014, mothers and young children fleeing violence, poverty and gangs in Central America have been arriving in droves to the US-Mexico border. The unprecedented surge forced the government to declare a “humanitarian crisis” and scramble to accommodate and process them.
This last part has been faltering, however. But now a recent decision forces the government to rule on their detention.
On Jan. 20, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Central District of California ordered ORR to provide detained unaccompanied immigrant children a hearing at which they are permitted to examine and rebut the government’s grounds for continuing their custody.
The court’s order enforces a nationwide agreement, known as the Flores Settlement, in which the federal government pledged to detain children only if they are demonstrable flight-risks, dangerous, or lack a parent or other suitable custodian to whom they may be safely released.
In requiring the US to grant detained children their bond hearings, the court observed that the government’s current practice of denying immigrant children an opportunity to be heard “could result in the indefinite detention of unaccompanied children without the due process protection” that’s offered to adult detainees through a bond hearing.
“Many kids are left twisting in the wind, sometimes for up to two years, and the kids are never really told why they are detained. They never know what is the basis for the ORR refusing to release them,” said Holguin who — along with CHRCL, the Immigration Law Clinic of the University of California Davis School of Law, and the Youth Law Center — represented the detained children.
“From here on out, there will be a hearing and ORR would not be able to detain these children without a valid reason,” Holguin added. “They should be doing this immediately, especially those who have been detained for longer periods of times.”
But while the recent decision is a legal victory for these unaccompanied minors, it is no guarantee they will get out.
They won’t have a lawyer to assist them at the hearings. They must explain their case to an immigration judge. Often, the only ones on their side are an interpreter and an ORR case worker.
Trauma And Shock
The unexplained incarcerations create another traumatic situation for minors who may already carry deep physical and emotional wounds.
Most of them are Central Americans, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “They have been shot, wounded, raped, have seen the rapes of others and have gone through any horrendous story you can think of,” Holguin said.
When they head north, they first must go through Mexico where they are often victimized again. Different reports show that 90 percent of migrants in Mexico are either assaulted or robbed.
Then they arrive in the U.S. where they are locked up without an explanation.
“Some deserve to be in juvenile halls. But that’s the purpose for a hearing, whether there is real basis to keep them in custody or not,” Holguin said.
“There’s value in letting people know at least why they’re held. There’s this transparency to see what it is against you and be able to explain it or rebut it. You’ve been given a fair chance instead of just left twisting in the wind.”
When they are released, many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments. They may also have problems adjusting to newfound families after being separated from parents for long years or all their lives, plus deal with a new country and new language, and new rules.
“I had a cultural shock because I didn’t know English. I was not used to living with my mother and I didn’t understand anything in school,” said Jonathan, a Salvadoran who appears in a YouTube video made by Homies Unidos, a community organization based in Los Angeles trying to help those unaccompanied minors adjust to life in the US.
Plaintiffs in the Flores case have a second motion pending in federal court with a hearing scheduled in Los Angeles on Jan. 30. That motion challenges the policy of detaining accompanied children in unlicensed facilities co-mingled with unrelated adults, and refusing to release them to available relatives or family friends.