U.S. authorities have compromised the rights and safety of some unaccompanied illegal immigrant children they have detained, and inadequate government guidelines are partly to blame, according to a Texas-based research group.
Many children appeared before immigration judges without legal representation, some were transported home in shackles or cages, and the medical needs of some were ignored, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank.
"There's no consistent policy. There's nobody who's responsible for these kids, in looking out for their safety," report author Amy Thompson said. "It's being handled in ad hoc fashion."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration and border enforcement, disputes the center's findings.
"DHS and its component agencies treat all minors, including unaccompanied alien children, with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerabilities," spokeswoman Laura Keehner said in a statement Thursday evening.
The report was compiled by examining U.S. immigration agency documents and immigration policies and statistics in the United States, Mexico and Honduras. The center also interviewed children who were apprehended, government officials, contractors and nonprofit workers in the three countries, and toured of two Texas facilities where unaccompanied illegal immigrant children are held.
An estimated 43,000 unaccompanied illegal immigrant children were removed from the United States in 2007, according to the report. They were caught while traveling alone, or with siblings, other children or adults whom they may not know.
'Mixed up in something bigger than themselves'
Fifty to 70 percent of unaccompanied minors who appeared before an immigration judge last year did so without legal representation, the center contends. Sometimes, consulates weren't notified about the repatriation of children from their country, a violation of an international treaty, the report says.
"I would say ‘Imagine your 8-year-old daughter or niece in a country where they didn't speak the language, don't know the culture and were completely at the mercy of strangers. How would you want them to be treated?’ " Thompson said. "Children aren't capable of understanding international laws and boundaries. They're little kids mixed up in something bigger than themselves."
Some children flown to non-bordering countries were shackled during the flight and those taken by vehicle across the border to Mexico were transported in kennel-like compartments, the report says. Mexican officials reported that some children were returned in the middle of the night and brought to ports of entry that weren't specified in agreements.
In one interview, a 13-year-old girl from Mexico described being injured during her apprehension in the summer of 2007. She said she was tackled by a U.S. official she thinks was a drug enforcement agent. The agent apologized but refused to take off her handcuffs, the girl said.
After she was transferred to the Border Patrol's custody, the girl said she asked for a pain reliever because she had recently had surgery on her arm and the injury caused by the agent aggravated the wound. But Border Patrol agents refused to give her over-the-counter medication, she said.
When the Mexican consulate intervened, the girl was taken to a hospital. The medical attention she received there seemed to be geared toward responding to the possibility of an abuse allegation, according to the report.
As many as 15 different U.S. federal agencies can be involved in the apprehension and repatriation of an unaccompanied child, the report states. There are very few written guidelines for the treatment of those children, it says.