More and more unaccompanied immigrant children attempting to enter the United States illegally by crossing the Mexico border are being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents. While the vast majority of the young migrants are promptly returned to Mexico, an increasing number, especially those from countries other than Mexico, are being held in U.S. detention centers not meant for children and for longer periods than allowed by law. This is a disturbing trend made worse by reports of maltreatment and sexual abuse of the children in custody.
Procedures for transferring migrants ages 18 and under from the custody of the Department of Homeland Security to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services have been in place since 2003. But a recent report by the DHS inspector general found that juveniles were held in DHS processing facilities for longer than 24 hours in violation of department guidelines, and that the conditions of confinement varied widely enough "to merit concern." The juveniles were also not transferred to longer-term youth facilities within the required three days.
Immigrant advocacy groups, and the inspector general's report, attribute the problems to insufficient training of Border Patrol agents and immigration and customs enforcement officers on the legal procedures for handling juveniles in custody. The report recommends, among several other things, that the undersecretary for border and transportation security establish a training program for all border and immigration officers whose duties bring them into contact with juvenile immigrants.
That recommendation makes sense, and should be promptly adopted. DHS also should look into allegations by advocates at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants that children as young as 8 were forced to sleep on cold detention cell floors without blankets, were underfed and denied medicine, and were verbally and sexually abused while in DHS custody.
Some 900 unaccompanied juvenile immigrants are being cared for in youth shelters, in foster and group homes and in other facilities under contract with the Department of Health and Human Services. While it is appalling that parents would permit their children to risk death, exploitation and kidnapping to cross the border, DHS has a responsibility to protect these children once they are in U.S. custody.