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Study: Undocumented immigrant youth languish in adult jails

A Chicago advocacy organization has obtained data showing that unaccompanied immigrant youth have been held in some adult detention facilities longer than federal law allows.

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Study: Undocumented immigrant youth languish in adult jails

In the last two years, the number of children illegally migrating to the U.S. has tripled. Many of them pass through Chicago.

Flickr/Nishanth Jois

A Chicago-based immigrant advocacy group has obtained data showing many unaccompanied immigrant youth are held in adult detention facilities longer than federally prescribed.

The National Immigrant Justice Center, which represents children who pass through federal custody facilities in the Chicago area, received the numbers after a two-year legal battle with the Department of Homeland Security. As part of a settlement, the NIJC secured information from 30 of the more than 200 adult immigrant detention facilities across the country.

“The government is failing to provide even the most basic protection for children,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director of NIJC. “Our system has designed a place that’s age-appropriate for immigrant children, and that’s not adult detention facilities that are jails.”

According to the data, more than 1,300 children were kept at adult immigration detention centers for more than three days between 2008 and 2012. Three of those facilities, the Jefferson County Jail, McHenry County Jail, and Tri-County Jail, are in Illinois.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied immigrant minors are required to be transferred to the federal Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of apprehension. The law makes an allowance for exceptional circumstances, particularly if the child is thought to pose a threat to national security. But McCarthy says she doubts that accounts for many cases.

“There’s something else behind this number, which is very unclear to me what’s driving this,” said McCarthy. WBEZ has reported that in the last two years, the U.S. has seen a tripling of unaccompanied immigrant minors, largely coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many of them pass through Chicago while in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, under HHS.

A 2012 survey by the Women’s Refugee Commission found similar stories among roughly 150 children who immigrated illegally to the U.S. without adults. It found that many children reported being detained in overcrowded, low-temperature holding cells at adult detention facilities, at times denied blankets, adequate food, and showers. Most important, said McCarthy, is that children there are denied access to legal counsel.

In a written response to the NIJC report, ICE stated:

“ICE takes the responsibility of caring for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) seriously and as of 2008, unaccompanied minors are not permitted to be detained by ICE for any longer than is necessary for Health and Human Services (HHS) to take custody of the minor. It is against ICE policy to detain an unaccompanied minor for more than 72 hours and in no instance will an unaccompanied minor be housed in an ICE detention facility while awaiting transfer to HHS. Unaccompanied minors are carefully kept in staging facilities away from the general population and minors are only held in ICE custody when accompanied by their parents in a facility designed to house families.”

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and at @WBEZOutLoud.

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