Albion Monitor /News

U.S. Immigration Abuses Rights of Women and Children, Groups Charge

In detention for months on end, bewildered and frightened, denied meaningful access to attorneys and to their relatives
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The rights of undocumented immigrant children and asylum-seeking women are abused as they are held in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities, two groups charge.

U.S. immigration authorities are holding hundreds of undocumented immigrant children -- most from Central America and China -- in conditions that violate international standards and their U.S. constitutional rights, says the Children's Rights Project of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The human rights group concludes in a new report that children are often denied legal advice, and most end up being deported.

"Many (of) them remain in detention for months on end, bewildered and frightened, denied meaningful access to attorneys and to their relatives," according to the report, "Slipping Through the Cracks."

New law gives the lowest level of INS officials the authority to make decisions that have life-or-death consequences
Based in part on interviews with officials, immigration lawyers, and some two dozen detained children in California and Arizona, the 120-page report says children as young as eight years old are being held in detention.

The report takes particular aim at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) which, it charges, "has a lamentable history of refusing to cooperate with community groups and public interest immigration attorneys who might assist the children."

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner responded by insisting that the agency "takes its responsibility to protect the juveniles in its custody very seriously and is steadfastly committed to ensuring their physical and emotional safety." She said all facilities used to house children in INS custody meet or exceed requirements set by state jurisdictions for safety, education, recreation, and health services.

"We are pretty confident that our program is running well," said INS spokeswoman Janna Evans, who noted that the agency recently created the position of National Juvenile Coordinator to ensure that regulations regarding the treatment of children are being enforced.

The INS was also charged yesterday by another group with abusing the rights of immigrant women who are kept in detention while their asylum claims are being heard.

A report released in New York by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children said that asylum-seeking women are often "incarcerated with criminal inmates, forced to wear prison uniforms, (and) shackled when transported to a hospital or to attend hearings with their lawyers."

The report, "Liberty Denied: Women Seeking Asylum Imprisoned in the United States," found that women asylum seekers were often denied services provided to their male counterparts, including translation and instruction in English. It also charges that the women often face "physical and verbal abuse in prisons used by the INS" to house undocumented immigrants.

The two reports were released ten days after the latest overhaul of U.S. immigration law took effect. That law permits the INS, for the first time, to immediately deport anyone entering the United States with inadequate documentation.

The only exceptions will be available for those immigrants who can demonstrate a "credible fear" of persecution when they are returned. Under the law, such asylum-seekers may be detained in local jails until their appeals are heard by an immigration judge.

The law's chief sponsors say these measures are necessary because many immigrants claiming to seek asylum have been released from custody only to disappear into the growing immigrant communities in the United States.

The new law has drawn sharp criticism from asylum advocates and immigration lawyers. "It gives the lowest level of INS officials the authority to make decisions that have life-or-death consequences for arriving asylum-seekers," according to Elena Massimino of the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights.

In 1994, the INS detained about 10,000 children, mostly from Cuba, Central America, Haiti, and China, 70 percent of whom were unaccompanied by adults when they entered the country. They are held in about 110 detention centers ranging from non-secure foster care facilities to local jails.

Under federal law, detention should be limited to 30 days, and legal, medical, and educational services must be made available to detained children. INS regulations call for juveniles to be released within 72 hours unless they are shown to be disruptive or likely to try to escape.

Human Rights Watch, which investigated the plight of immigrant children held in Los Angeles County and Arizona, found that, although detention conditions varied greatly, "they are typically extremely poor."

The group found that some of the worst violations took place at a privately run shelter in Arizona, which operated under contract to the INS. There it found "multiple, repeated and persistent violations of INS regulations," especially access to legal representation that would make an asylum claim possible.

"These children just languish in detention," says Lee Tucker, a HRW staff attorney, who visited the facility. "They're frightened, they're alone, and they have no way of understanding what's happening to them."

Evans told IPS that the agency recently terminated its contract with the Arizona shelter. "We want to know about abuses," she added.

Another major difficulty is the INS' dual role as a law-enforcer and a legal guardian
The Human Rights Watch investigators found that children under INS detention are generally given inadequate information about their legal rights and frequently cannot obtain information in a language they understand. Both Spanish-speaking and Chinese-speaking translators are "rare to non-existent," according to the report.

A major problem is the dearth of funding for legal services to undocumented children, according to the report which noted that recent changes in federal law prohibiting government-funded Legal Services lawyers from representing undocumented immigrants are likely to worsen the situation.

Another major difficulty is the INS' dual role as a law-enforcer and a legal guardian in the case of unaccompanied immigrant children. "Much of the time, however, INS officials and employees appear to forget their role as service providers and instead structure their professional identities around their role as law enforcement agents," the report concludes.

Other industrialized nations, including Britain, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands, place unaccompanied children in the custody of child welfare authorities while immigration officials assess their status.

The Human Rights Watch report echoes findings of a preliminary study by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights which interviewed juveniles detained in INS-contracted facilities in Michigan and Texas in 1995. Many of the children reported suffering physical or sexual assault and verbal abuse while in detention. It also found that children's medical needs were largely ignored.

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Albion Monitor May 7, 1997 (

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