The headlines have increasingly focused on undocumented immigrants in the United States. Every day there are new stories, from the conservative and the liberal sector, that describe one issue or another regarding illegal immigration. For example, the news has focused on the new configured rate of illegal immigration (which as of March 10 was reported to be in decline) or a new crime committed by or against an undocumented immigrant. However, only recently have the media focused on immigrant detention centers, and rarely has the press focused on immigrant youth detention centers. Undocumented youth, just like adults, can be detained due to their legal status. While the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency is focused on finding criminal and violent undocumented immigrants, that does not mean that they let everyday undocumented individuals go, and youth are no exception.
Undocumented youth are brought to the attention of ICE officers mainly due to two reasons. The first reason is that immigrant youth are caught trying to cross the border illegally. It has been calculated that in recent years “approximately 8,000 youth are considered ‘unaccompanied alien children’” who tried to enter the United States (Frankel 2011: 64). These youth travel extraordinary lengths to try and find a better life in the United States. The film Which Way Home, produced by HBO, documents the journey of children as they travel to the U.S. The other reason undocumented youth are brought to the attention of ICE is because they are entered into the juvenile justice system without a clear legal status, in which case ICE puts a hold on their forms. It is approximated that “1,000 minors are apprehended each year through internal enforcement efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (Frankel 2011: 64).
Once within ICE custody, youth are sent to detention centers or an “ICE-contracted facility—a local city or county jail, a state facility, or a juvenile detention center” (Frankel 2011 74). These facilities, jails, and detention centers, are created for the purpose of rehabilitating incarcerated individuals who were convicted of committing a crime. Undocumented youth who are detained–not because of criminal offenses but because of their legal status–are then sent to these facilities. In “An Analysis of Treatment of Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refuge Children in INS Detention and Other Forms of Institutionalized Custody,” author Lisa Rodriguez Navarro writes that “the INS treats unaccompanied minors like common criminals by handcuffing them during transit and by requiring that they wear jail clothes” (1998: 601). However, unlike incarcerated individuals, undocumented youth who have been detained do not know the duration of their sentences. Youth can spend a couple months to over a year incarcerated (Navarro 1998: 599). Not only are these youth contained in a criminal setting, there is a history of undocumented youth being denied services.
Navarro writes that “these centers, camps and facilities have a history of housing immigrant minors in disgraceful conditions without access to education, health care, legal services, or other basic necessities” (1998: 590). These detention centers do not provide the guaranteed rights to undocumented youth. Even though these youth are not citizens, that does not mean that they should be denied the liberties entitled to them.
Undocumented individuals, especially youth, “have no statutory right to counsel at the governments expense” (Frankel 2011: 66). This means that undocumented youth must be able to pay for a legal representative or find a pro bono attorney, however, most youth appear before court without any representative.
Undocumented youth who have been detained live in unsafe facilities, do no receive access to legal aid, and are often treated like criminals. Media, news sources and academia should focus more on what is happening to detained undocumented youth in the United States.
Frankel, Elizabeth M. 2011. “Detention and Deportation with Inadequate Due Process: The Devastating Consequences of Juvenile Involvement with Law Enforcement for Immigrant Youth.” Duke Forum for Law & Social Change, 3(63):63-107. Retrieved from http://www.law.uchicago.edu/faculty/research/elizabeth-frankel-detention-and-deportation-inadequate-due-process-devastating-cons
Navarro, Lisa Rodriguez. 1998. “An Analysis of Treatment of Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refuge Children in INS Detention and Other Forms of Institutionalized Custody.” Chicano-Latino Law Review 19:598-612.