Two Salvadoran teen-agers were released from detention today after refugee advocates complained that U.S. immigration authorities are holding children as lures to capture their illegal immigrant parents.
The two girls, aged 15 and 16, were released on the orders of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kelleher, who agreed to let family friends take custody of the children on the condition they be returned for deportation hearings. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has refused to release illegal immigrant minors to anyone but their parents or legal guardians.
"They are just trying to force the parents to come in," said Carlos Holguin, general counsel for the National Center for Immigrants' Rights Inc., which sought Kelleher's intervention.
At a news conference, INS western regional commissioner Harold Ezell denied any desire to use children as lures. He said the agency does not want to "add to an already growing problem of child abuse" by handing minors over to anyone but their legal guardians.
About 200 illegal alien children are being held in detention centers in the West and South, Ezell said. Most are caught shortly after crossing the border by themselves or with adults who are not their parents. Most are from El Salvador and Guatemala, immigration authorities said, sent ahead by parents or coming to join parents already here.
Holguin said the INS policy is unnecessarily harsh toward refugees from war-torn communities. He said the detention centers provide no schooling and little recreation. Some children are forced to sleep in rooms with adults, "creating a potential for abuse," Holguin said.
The two children released today, and another 13-year-old girl released Tuesday by a U.S. immigration judge, have been kept in a 125-bed facility on a busy, tree-lined street in this Los Angeles suburb. The building, a former convalescent home in a neighborhood full of convalescent homes, is run by a private contractor and currently holds about 40 illegal alien children, an immigration official said.
Holguin's organization has asked the federal courts to direct INS to release children to any adult who can satisfy immigration authorities that the children will be properly cared for and will appear at future hearings. Holguin noted that juvenile courts in the United States do not require in all cases that children arrested for crimes be turned over to parents or legal guardians.
Ezell said the INS is happy to abide by Kelleher's decision because it maintains the principle that only court-sanctioned guardians can receive the children. The legal effort to free them, he said, has little to do with concern for the children but is "part of a campaign against the administration's policy in Central America."
Holguin said immigration authorities try to pressure children to sign releases that will permit their immediate deportation. If they do not sign, and their parents do not appear, they could wait as long as two years for a deportation hearing, he said.
Ezell said that the average time in detention is only 28 days and that no child in his facilities has been held longer than four months. He said an illegal immigrant parent appearing to accept a child would not be detained, but would be allowed release on bond until a deportation hearing date.