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Child Migrants in U.S. Alone Get Sheltered, Deported

At a Health and Human Services Shelter for migrant children in Chicago, John Muckian (right), a clinician, performs a psychological evaluation of a new arrival from Mexico.
At a Health and Human Services Shelter for migrant children in Chicago, John Muckian (right), a clinician, performs a psychological evaluation of a new arrival from Mexico.
Giovanni, 16, (left) crossed the border into Arizona when he was just 12. He's pictured with his foster family in Richmond, Va., with whom he is living while he waits for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, designed for those who've been abused or neglected.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR /
Giovanni, 16, (left) crossed the border into Arizona when he was just 12. He's pictured with his foster family in Richmond, Va., with whom he is living while he waits for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, designed for those who've been abused or neglected.

More and more of the illegal immigrants detained in the United States are children who've come here alone. Last year, there were about 8,000 in custody, up from 4,500 in 2000. Until recently, the federal immigration agency housed these young migrants in juvenile detention centers. But a 2002 court settlement deemed children were being treated too harshly, so Congress asked the Department of Health and Human Services to take custody of them.

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Today, the system is a study in contradiction: Immigration officials still work to deport these children, even as HHS operates a growing network of shelters to care for and educate them.

Reuniting with Family in U.S. Often Difficult

One shelter sits behind a locked iron gate, on a tree-lined street north of Chicago, indistinguishable from other low-rise apartment buildings on the block. Its location is kept secret to protect the children from smugglers who may show up demanding payment.

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The building is a former nursing home, with walls full of photos and cheery displays aimed at making it feel cozy. Since children stay an average of 45 days, and sometimes longer, there are plenty of activities: academic classes during the day, life skills seminars at night, and a host of heavily supervised field trips to amusement parks and museums. It can all seem surreal, says acting director Ricardo Jonas.

“Some of these kids have been living in the streets or taking care of their families,” Jonas says. “They really didn't have much of a childhood, so they don't know what a toy is, or [what it's like to] spend time without thinking that they need to work or put food on the table.”

The shelter's main goal is to reunite the children with their family. That could mean deportation, unless the child has a strong case to claim asylum or some other type of protective visa. If the child has family members already here, as many do, he or she can live with them while a court decides whether or not the child can stay in the country. But often those family members are illegal, and lawyer Karen Donoso Stevens says they may be afraid to come forward and claim their son or daughter.

"Another tough situation is that you are talking about a family who has been here a while, so they have U.S. citizen siblings,” Stevens says. So the family wonders, 'Do I jeopardize my children who have status to sponsor my one child that's in custody?'"

Lack of Lawyers for Child Migrants

Another problem is a severe lack of legal representation.

"There is an absolute void in immigration law in terms of the best interest of the child,” says Maria Woltjen, of the Immigrant Children's Advocacy Project. It's estimated that about 90 percent of underage migrants don't have a lawyer. Yet even in asylum cases, Woltjen says, the law treats minors the same as adults.

"They've got to show exactly the same evidence, even though a child who comes here might not know details of whatever political reasons they had to be sent from their country," she says.

A bill to require lawyers for young migrants has repeatedly failed in Congress. There are numerous efforts to expand the network of pro-bono lawyers, but a big obstacle is that so many of the shelters housing them are in remote locations.

Lives in Limbo

Since the 2002 settlement, more child migrants have also been placed in foster homes while their cases are decided. In Richmond, Va., 16-year-old Giovanni has found a happy life with foster parents Ben and Henryatta. (Giovanni skipped out on the smuggler who brought him to the United States, and for fear of being tracked down, all three have asked NPR not to use their last names).

Giovanni says he was abandoned by his single mom, and crossed the border into Arizona when he was just 12. He spent three years as a day laborer in San Francisco before being arrested and turned over to immigration authorities.

Today, Giovanni says he's doing well in 10th grade and was voted Rookie of the Year on the local soccer team. He is hoping to be granted a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, designed for those who've been abused or neglected; 660 such visas were approved last year.

Giovanni's foster father Ben is actually a longtime law enforcement officer with a firm view on immigration. While he's fond of Giovanni, he admits the situation is awkward.

"You sound kind of double tongued when you say 'shut the border down,' yet we house someone from Mexico," Ben says. "It's a very touchy subject."

The change to a kinder, gentler system for child migrants has had a trade-off. Once kids are released to families or foster care, there's no more supervision. It's estimated about half never show up in court, simply disappearing into the immigrant underground.

It's hoped that finding more pro-bono lawyers could bring down the number of absconders. But there may also be no perfect solution in the delicate balance between enforcing the law and ensuring children's welfare.

Marisa Penaloza produced this report for radio.

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