Crossing the line - Page 4

How Mayor Newsom's policies are tearing apart families, imprisoning and imperiling children, and creating a climate of fear in immigrant communities
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Immigration rally at City Hall
Photo by Lars Howlett

But it probably won't reveal which facilities these kids were sent to or whether they were ultimately deported, even though these kids were apprehended on the basis of referrals made by local city officials.

Nor will it show what the local community knows full well: that many deported kids cross back over the border to rejoin their families. Only now, because they have been deported, they are forced to go underground and are at risk if being recruited by gangs.

The federal government's Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program was transferred from ORR to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. "The program is designed to provide for the care and placement of unaccompanied alien minors apprehended in the U.S. by Homeland Security agents, border patrol officers, or other law enforcement agencies and are taken into care pending resolution of their claims for relief under U.S. immigration law or released to adult family members or responsible adult guardians," reads the U.S. Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. "Resolution of their claims may result in release, granting of an immigration status (such as special immigrant juvenile or asylum), voluntary departure, or removal."

According to a 2008 ORR report, "a great number of UAC have been subjected to severe trauma, including sexual abuse and sexual assault in their home countries or on their journey to the U.S.: gang violence, domestic violence, traumatic loss of a parent, and physical abuse and neglect. In addition, UAC experience the increased probability of ongoing trauma as a result of their uncertain legal status and return to difficult life circumstances."

The report also notes that "UAC have indicated that, among other reasons, they leave their home countries for the U.S. to rejoin family, escape abusive family relationships in their home country, or find work to support their families in their home country."

ORR has approximately 7,200 UAC a year in its facilities, which are operated by organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. There are more than 41 ORR-funded care provider facilities in 10 different states.

Last year's ORR report noted that average length of stay in federal detention facilities is 55 days before children are released to family members and other sponsors, move into the adult system, or are returned to their home countries.

"As these programs increase and ICE increasingly places people in them, there's a financial incentive to keep detaining people." Francisco Ugarte, an immigration lawyer with San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, told us.

But Abigail Trillin, staff attorney for Legal Services for Children, says ORR is doing a better job of handling juveniles than ICE did. "ORR has the right and obligation to try and place these kids in the least restrictive option," Trillin said. "But being reunified with your family does not in any way change the fact that you are under federal removal proceedings. So you still have a very significant risk of being deported alone to your country of origin."

Having a documented parent helps a juvenile make the case for staying in the U.S. permanently, as does having grounds for asylum. Having siblings who are U.S. citizens or having been here since you were a small child does not significantly help someone's case.

But ending up in lockup can makes things worse. "If a child is in an ORR secure detention facility, they are less likely to fight their deportation case — a fight that could take up to two years — than if they were reunified with their family," Trillin said.