WASHINGTON — As more unaccompanied children from Central America are caught entering the country illegally, their plight is proving to be both a political and custodial headache for the Obama administration.
Unlike children from Mexico, who are screened upon arrival in the U.S. to see if they are eligible for asylum, unaccompanied children from countries that don’t border the U.S. are processed differently.
Since October, 51,431 unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have been referred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for care as they await the outcome of their immigration hearings, said agency spokesman Kenneth Wolfe.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred the custody and care of unaccompanied alien children from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service to HHS. The move signaled a shift away from an adult detention style of care to a system geared more toward a child’s welfare.
A 2008 federal law required unaccompanied alien children to be “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement operates about 100 short-term shelters near the Mexican border to house these children. An HHS document describes the shelters as “consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located.”
Once in HHS custody, the children are given medical and mental health examinations, screened for tuberculosis and provided with all needed vaccinations, according to HHS. Those with communicable diseases or exposure to them are placed in a facility with quarantine capabilities. Those with mental health problems are also placed in a special facility.
The steady flow of Central American children has forced HHS to open three temporary shelters that collectively house about 3,000 youngsters. They include a 1,100-bed facility at Joint Base San Antonio, a military facility in Texas; 600 beds at Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme in California; and 1,200 beds at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The shelters have been authorized by the Department of Defense to stay open for four months, with most children staying an average of less than 35 days, according to HHS.
Most of the youngsters, however, are housed through a system of state-licensed, HHS-funded care providers across the country. These facilities provide a range of care options, including foster care, group homes and residential treatment centers. They also provide classroom education, health care, socialization services, vocational training, mental health services and access to legal services.
Under terms of court orders in several class-action lawsuits, the Department of Homeland Security must provide the youngsters a written explanation of their rights. If they can’t read, their rights must be read to them aloud, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a national legal advocacy organization.
The children also must receive a list of free legal services in the area where they’re held and access to telephones, according to the law center. By law, the youngsters also must be advised that they can call a parent, a relative or an attorney or a legal assistance organization.
To help them access legal representation for the immigration hearing process, HHS runs a legal access project that also informs unaccompanied children of their rights and conducts individual legal screenings.
According to an HHS document, many of the children “meet conditions that make them eligible for legal relief to remain in the United States including asylum; special visas for children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by the parents or guardians; special visas for victims of severe forms of trafficking and other types of criminal violence; or adjustment of status for those who have a legal resident or citizen family member” in this country.
Of the 51,000-plus youngsters who were caught entering the country illegally since October, 44,617 already have been discharged from federal custody, said Wolfe, the HHS spokesman. About 96 percent of the discharged youngsters were released to sponsors in the United States, many of whom were family members, he added.
Children in shelters do not attend local schools, but once they are placed in the custody of relatives or adult sponsors, they must be enrolled.
Local school districts across the country, including those in New York City, Miami, San Francisco and Prince Georges County, Md., a suburb of Washington, have seen a surge in Central American students since the wave of unaccompanied children began several years ago.