(Eric Gay, Pool, Associated Press)
This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas.
INDIANAPOLIS — Far from today’s near-militarized U.S.-Mexico border, rural southwest Indiana recently was ground zero for undocumented children from Mexico and Central America.
From 2004 to 2010, the federal government contracted with a privately owned juvenile detention facility in Vincennes, Indiana, to house immigrant children deemed the most dangerous.
These children arrived at the Southwest Indiana Regional Youth Village after being identified at the border because of tattoos or suspicion of drug use and other offenses in their home countries. Others had caused trouble or run away from less secure facilities in the United States. A few had U.S. juvenile delinquency records.
As the immigration clinic director of Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law, I traveled to Vincennes with volunteer law school students to provide legal assistance to these kids.
Funded in part by the federal government, the immigration clinic students and I provided “know your rights” presentations to explain to the children their legal rights and what they could expect in upcoming immigration court proceedings.
Children — like adults — have no legal right to government-funded attorneys in immigration proceedings. As a result, we individually interviewed the children to match strong cases with volunteer attorneys.
We found children fleeing domestic abuse, gang violence and drugs. Some were subject to rape and mistreatment in other U.S. detention facilities.
These children were eligible for asylum and other special visas for abandoned children and victims of crime and human trafficking. Many were reunited with family in the United States based on the Supreme Court guarantee of “least restrictive placement” for children in immigration proceedings. Others went home voluntarily. Some were deported.
At one point, the immigrant children in Vincennes staged a peaceful sit-down to protest detention conditions. The local Knox County SWAT team was called in with riot gear, billy clubs and a police dog. Children were subject to lockdown, solitary confinement and abuse.
When they spoke about the facility’s misconduct to IU’s law school students, we notified the federal government, which took immediate corrective action. Shortly thereafter, the private facility stopped housing immigrant children.
The federal treatment of today’s immigrant children mirrors what happened at Vincennes, although on a much larger scale.
As the U.S. demand for drugs and guns continues, the violence in Central America is increasing. Children are amassing along the border. Volunteer attorneys are being recruited to travel to these sites to deliver “know your rights” presentations and individually screen children. Pro bono and privately paid attorneys are assuming the representation of children reunited with families throughout the country.
U.S. immigration and refugee law protects survivors of violence and persecution. Attorneys, law school clinics and other volunteers are now stepping up and coordinating their services with the federal government.
Certainly, it is not a perfect system. But the Obama administration continues to demonstrate a commitment to protecting undocumented children within today’s political and legal limits.
Initial exploration of refugee status for children in Honduras is part of that effort. Individuals fearing persecution throughout the world have had the right to seek refugee status at U.S. embassies after the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.
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This humanitarian legislation also gives the resident discretionary authority to address “unforeseen emergency refugee situations.” These laws are built upon our historical protection of persons and acceptance of international conventions passed in the wake of World War II.
Not every child is entitled to admission. But turning children away at gunpoint is inconsistent with established law and practice. Our youngest immigrants must continue to have their legal rights protected, be provided visas when merited, and be repatriated safely as necessary.
Linda Kelly is the M. Dale Palmer professor of law and the immigration clinic director at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law.