Many Refugee Kids Face Tough Times in INS Detention

Times Staff Writer

Esther Valladares Munoz, a frightened, brown-eyed girl abandoned by her parents in Honduras, slipped across the Rio Grande illegally to live with an aunt in Texas. She was caught in Houston two years ago and held for a civil deportation hearing. Federal agents jailed her in a coed ward with accused rapists and drug addicts. She was 14.

Valladares was treated like an accused felon. A female guard took her to a cell at the Liberty County Jail, 46 miles northeast of Houston. The guard put on latex gloves and told the youngster to strip. She had never disrobed in front of a stranger. She stood naked while the guard searched her mouth, her hair, her entire body.

“I felt like I was drowning,” Valladares recalled.

For three weeks, she was not able to phone anyone, including her aunt or her grandmother, also in Texas. She spent seven months in the jail, much of it locked in a windowless cell, until an immigration judge ordered her expelled from the country. Valladares appealed and was released on her own recognizance. Now 16, she is living with her aunt in Donna, Texas, awaiting further legal proceedings.


The Homeland Security Act, signed Nov. 25 by President Bush, means that children like Esther Valladares Munoz likely will be treated differently in the future. In the most recent Immigration and Naturalization Service tally, 4,896 of these children entered the United States alone and illegally during fiscal 2001. They were caught and held for more than three days before being deported or released on bail into the custody of a relative. Most came from Central America, Mexico or China to reunite with a parent, find work, flee abusive families or escape lives as street orphans.

A provision of the homeland act gives authorities 14 months to remove most of these children from INS custody and place them in the hands of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The act encourages the refugee office to curtail the use of jails for detention in favor of more nurturing, open shelters and foster care.

“Our direction,” said Nguyen Van Hanh, head of the refugee office, “is to look into foster care as a major way to handle the children.”

These children have posed a dilemma for years. Child advocates have fought to improve the conditions of their detention. At the same time, however, immigration authorities have contended that placing many of the children in foster homes or releasing them on bail to their relatives, who are typically in the United States without proper documents, would make it even easier for the children to disappear into the country -- and it would encourage more of them to enter the U.S. illegally.

Van Hanh said his office might provide the children with social workers. But the homeland act stops short of granting other safeguards sought by child advocates. They include assigning the youngsters U.S.-paid attorneys. By federal count, 57% of these children represent themselves in Immigration Court. In one instance, a 1 1/2-year-old Jamaican girl stood alone before a judge in Miami until an INS official finally asked a local attorney to help her. The Department of Justice objected to government-paid lawyers, saying it might lead to costly federal help for all illegal immigrants.

Lack of representation often means more jail time because judges continue cases hoping an attorney will volunteer to help, says Wendy Young, a representative of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Some of the children attempt suicide. While Valladares was at Liberty, a 16-year-old immigrant boy grew so desperate after being held six months that he tried to hang himself. Lawyers say lack of counsel also means a steady stream of children with viable claims for political asylum are being deported back into dangerous circumstances in their home countries.


Legal Process

When immigrant children are arrested for allegedly entering the United States illegally, they can be charged with “entering without inspection,” which is treated as a misdemeanor. More typically, they are ordered to appear at administrative civil deportation hearings and placed in detention while immigration courts decide whether to expel them or grant them asylum if they face persecution in their home countries.

Parents or relatives bail out some of the detained children, a process that often takes months. Other youngsters cannot make bail, perhaps because they have no parents or relatives nearby. Many times, the INS incarcerates immigrant children in juvenile lockups, jailing them with accused felons.

In 1985, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a Los Angeles immigrant rights group, and the National Center for Youth Law, a San Francisco children’s rights group, sued the Department of Justice, parent agency of the INS, demanding, among other things, that it improve conditions of detention.

The suit was settled in 1996. The INS agreed to treat the children with “dignity, respect and special concern for their vulnerability as minors.” It agreed to place them in the least-restrictive setting appropriate to their needs and, in most cases, jail them only if they were convicted of a crime committed in the U.S., or were deemed an escape risk, or briefly to accommodate an “emergency influx” of children.

A report issued in 2001 by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice found, however, that compliance with the settlement was plagued with problems that could have “potentially serious consequences affecting the well-being of the juveniles.” The report cited these specifics:

* The INS was using the “emergency influx” provision to jail large numbers of non-delinquent children for long periods when no emergency existed;


* 34% of immigrant children were spending at least some of their detention in 57 jails scattered throughout the country, usually county jails used to incarcerate and punish youthful offenders;

* More than half of those jails, including Liberty County, had no facilities to segregate non-delinquent immigrant children from juvenile offenders;

* The INS needed to speed up its process of deporting children or reuniting them with family because 40% were being held for more than a month, 7% for more than six months and 1% for more than a year.

The INS responded that it was in “substantial compliance” with the settlement, that it had exceeded many of its requirements and that it was continuing to work to improve its juvenile program.

Abuse Alleged

At the Gila County Juvenile Detention Facility in Globe, Ariz., Juan Pablo Lopez Cruz, a 17-year-old Honduran, told The Times last summer that he had been locked up dehydrated and suffering from a fever, so weak he could barely stand.

He said he asked in vain to see a doctor.

Lopez, who had entered the U.S. illegally to flee an abusive mother and live with a brother in Virginia, said he and an 11-year-old friend were taken to an outdoor pen for half an hour each day, where U.S.-born delinquents tormented them by hitting them repeatedly in the face with a ball. “Some had sold drugs,” he said. “Some had raped people; others were murderers.”


At the Martin Hall Juvenile Detention Center in Medical Lake, Wash., a Guatemalan orphan, Alfonso Mendoza Gomez, said in an August interview that he spent six months locked up in a cell near an American prisoner who said he had killed his own parents. “There were a lot of criminals,” said Mendoza, who was 16 at the time. “Sometimes they hit the INS kids.”

A 16-year-old Mexican girl at Martin Hall tried to slit her wrists, said Atieno Odhiambo, an attorney who began representing children as young as 10 at the facility in December 2000 for Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit group. Odhiambo said the jail responded to suicide attempts by putting children in solitary confinement.

Until December 2001, when the Liberty County Jail near Houston, run by the for-profit Corrections Corp. of America, stopped taking minors, it was second only to Los Angeles’ Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center in housing the largest number of immigrant children in INS custody.

A Liberty detainee, Edin Armando Zepeda Rodriguez, 17, from Honduras, said that he could call collect only within the United States and that nobody would help him find a number for relatives in Boston. No one in his family knew where he was.

On 19 of 21 weekly shifts, he said, his guards spoke only English.

During his three months at Liberty, Zepeda said, he was housed with six accused felons, one charged with selling cocaine, who barked and banged a shoe against the stainless steel toilet. To stay sane, Zepeda said, he ran in circles around his cell, and a pod-mate read his shampoo instructions over and over.

Zepeda said the jail did not feed him or the other children enough. He and former guards said the facility, the top financial performer among 79 Corrections Corp. of America facilities in 1998, encouraged them to buy food from its commissary. Most immigrant kids, however, had no money.


Guards, including women, peered through his cell window, catching him on the toilet. Zepeda was mortified. Occasionally, he lay on the floor under his bed, trying to find privacy.

“I fear that in here I’ll go crazy,” he said. His shoulders shuddered. Then tears rolled down his cheeks. He said, sobbing: “I’m not an animal.”

Robert Lacy Jr., administrator at the Liberty County Jail, said detainees were treated well, and he denied that they were underfed. “There was no encouragement,” he said, “to get them to buy from the commissary.”

Some INS agents oppose moving illegal immigrant children to HHS shelters and foster homes.

Sixty-eight percent of the children in the present system who are released on bail into the custody of parents or relatives subsequently skip out on their court proceedings.

Moving the children into shelters and foster homes, the agents say, will only make it easier for them to run away.

The result, says Carlos Gonzalez, a former INS juvenile coordinator for the Houston area, will be to make it easier for these children and their often-undocumented parents to vanish into America.


Moreover, Gonzalez says, putting the children in welcoming foster homes and shelters will only attract more of them to the United States when their numbers are already on the rise.

In addition, says Virginia Kice, an INS spokeswoman, some of these youngsters, especially troubled orphans who have lived on the streets, are hard to handle and would cause problems in foster homes.

In isolated cases, Kice says, coyotes, separated from children by the INS, might kidnap the children from foster homes and hold them for payment for their smuggling services.

‘Home Sweet Home’

Curtailing jails would mean using more shelters and foster programs like the 25 that the INS already employs.

They include a shelter operated by International Educational Services in Los Fresnos, Texas.

The home does not lock children in. “We explain this is not a jail,” says Roy de la Cerda Jr., a counselor.


“This is a school. We are here to help you.”

The only tall fence encircles a swimming pool, to keep children from drowning.

Treat the children well, director Ruben Gallegos Jr. says, and they won’t run away. Of the nearly 1,000 who stay yearly, only a handful have tried to escape, he says, and most have been caught at an INS checkpoint up the road.

Eber Ismael Sandoval Andino, 11, from Honduras, showed up in 1999 after riding freight trains up through Mexico. Inside the double doors, he was greeted by a sign embroidered in cursive letters that said: Home Sweet Home. During school, which began with the American Pledge of Allegiance, he leaned over a book with large type to read small sentences in Spanish.

A Joyful Outing

One afternoon, he and other boys went to a bowling alley. Sandoval ran partway down a lane and hurled the ball the rest of the way, then shrieked with joy, dancing and kicking up his heels all the way back to his seat.

Before going to bed, everyone got Pop Tarts and milk.

“Thank you for allowing us to have a great time today,” Sandoval told Mike Perez, a shelter worker.

“Goodnight, sir,” Perez responded, an evening tradition.

Perez shook hands with each boy as he filed into a bedroom to sleep. Every bed had its child’s name above the headboard. Each month, children with birthdays found their photos on a bulletin board proclaiming: “You’re So Special!” Everyone celebrated with cake and ice cream or banana splits crowned with candles.

Counselors talked with children who seemed depressed. Once a week, Olga Cantarero, a coordinator with a nonprofit immigrant aid group, Proyecto Libertad, instructed children on their legal rights.


A well-to-do man from a nearby community drove up one day when the children were playing soccer on part of the 34 acres surrounding the home.

“Are you spending my tax money on these illegal aliens?” Gallegos says the man asked. He was incensed, Gallegos says, because he had seen a newspaper picture of children in the swimming pool.

“What are you doing?” he asked Gallegos. “Teaching them how to swim better across the Rio Grande?”

To which Gallegos responded: “They are children. I could care less if they are immigrants. They are children.”



California detention centers

California jails, foster and group homes where unaccompanied children were held in 2001:


Central Juvenile Hall (104 children)

Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center (221)

Los Angeles hotels (security guard posted outside room) (80)

San Diego Juvenile Hall (103)

Tulare County Juvenile Detention Facility (44)

Marin County Juvenile Hall (12)

San Mateo Juvenile Hall (1)


Casa San Juan, San Diego (138)

Southwest Key , El Cajon (148)

Hosanna Ranch for Boys and Girls, San Francisco area (90)

Source: U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service. Data are for unaccompanied minors detained during fiscal year 2001. Data do not include many children, particularly those from Mexico, who are quickly deported.