The Young Center Immigrant Child Advocacy Clinic Visits the U.S./Mexico Border. By Robert Armstrong '13

May 18, 2012

During spring break, students from the Young Center Immigrant Child Advocacy Clinic traveled to Harlingen, Texas, a town on the U.S./Mexico border where over 350 immigrant children are currently detained.  For the last two years, the Young Center has run a small pilot project to provide Child Advocates for children in custody in Harlingen.  Child Advocates (similar to guardians ad litem) advocate for the best interests—safety and well-being—of the children as they await reunification with family or placement in a more permanent home.

The Young Center advocates for the best interests of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children.  These are children who come to the United States from all corners of the world, on their own, without their parents or traditional caregivers.  They are apprehended by immigration authorities and placed in facilities around the country.

Renée Ahlers, Erin Bradley, and Robert Armstrong, along with Young Center Associate Director, Elizabeth Frankel, visited detention centers, immigration court, Customs and Border Patrol and other locations along the southern border.  The goal of the trip was to learn about the challenges of serving youth detained in border areas and develop recommendations to ensure children’s rights, as provided in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

 Once apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, immigrant children who are not accompanied by parents are taken into custody.  They are first held by the Department of Homeland Security and are required to be transferred within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for placing the children in facilities specifically contracted to care for minors.  There are currently six such facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, including two short-term foster care programs, with approximately 100 beds for young children (under age 12) and pregnant and parenting teenagers.  

 During the trip, the students visited three facilities for unaccompanied immigrant children. It was a particularly interesting time to visit the Rio Grande Valley because the facilities there are experiencing an unusually large influx of children.  Anecdotally, approximately 40-50 children are arriving on the border every day.  As a result, the federal government has had to create “emergency shelters” (with beds for anywhere from 40-100 children) until beds become available in other facilities around the country.  Some advocates believe that the influx may be due in part to an immigration law passed by Mexico approximately one year ago, which allows unaccompanied children to be in Mexico without visas for humanitarian reasons.  This law marks a significant change in Mexican policy, as the government previously detained and deported many unaccompanied immigrant children.

 Students also visited the Harlingen Immigration Court to observe the juvenile docket.  Like adult immigrants, children in immigration proceedings have a right to counsel, but not at government expense.  As a result, many children represent themselves pro se.  Prior to commencing proceedings, the court clerk showed the children a series of color- coded forms and provided brief explanations of legal terms such as “notice to appear,” “removal,” “alien,” and “voluntary departure.”  The judge then politely, but curtly, called each child to the stand individually and asked whether he or she was requesting additional time to find an attorney, or would prefer to be returned to his or her home country.  The children were visibly nervous; for most, this was the first time that they had appeared before any judge in any court.

The team requested a visit to the U.S. Border Patrol Fort Brown Station, where unaccompanied children are initially detained upon apprehension; however, the request was denied.  Instead, the students met with a group of U.S. Border Patrol agents including the station chief.  The agents said that they endeavor to ensure that their detention facilities are safe and that children are transferred to appropriate detention facilities as soon as possible after apprehension.  After visiting with U.S. Border Patrol, the students met with Kimi Jackson, an attorney with ProBAR—the local legal service provider—who represents unaccompanied immigrant children in Harlingen.  Ms. Jackson is responsible for reporting complaints about Border Patrol’s treatment of children; she explained that children report being afraid of the Border Patrol agents and some say they have been pushed and yelled at by officers.  Children also report being cold at the Border Patrol stations and having to sleep on concrete floors with mats.

Federal regulations provide that minors cannot be housed in the same facility as adults; however, when an unaccompanied minor turns 18, that child is immediately transferred to an adult detention facility.  During the trip, students visited the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) – the adult immigrant detention facility in the Rio Grande Valley where youth are transferred on their 18th birthday.  The facility is currently home to approximately 1,100 detainees, the majority of whom are awaiting deportation.  The differences between PIDC and the facilities for minors could not be starker. The children’s facilities are required to comply with the standards set forth in Reno v. Flores, a settlement agreement reached in 1996 which requires that minors be kept “in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”  The children receive educational and clinical services, and have access to recreation.  By contrast, the adult facilities are prisons, with extensive security and few services.  PIDC staff indicated that despite the jarring change of environment for children who age-out there are no special accommodations to help lessen the impact for these children who are suddenly deemed adults on their 18th birthday.

The trip to Harlingen and the surrounding region of Texas provided the students with direct insight into the global challenges associated with our current immigration system, as well as the specific challenges that arise from maintaining a high population of unaccompanied minors along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was fascinating to see the ripple effect—Mexico passes a new immigration law and no longer deports unaccompanied children—a year later there is a dramatic increase in children from Central America arriving at the U.S./Mexico border—in all likelihood, a direct consequence of the Mexican law.  

The Harlingen area and other similarly situated border communities lack many of the services available in urban areas. For example, at present, there is no government-paid representation for immigrant children and the system is set up to rely on pro bono attorneys to represent the children.  Yet a remote location like Harlingen has no large law firms and no cadre of young associates eager to take on pro bono cases.  In addition, many of the children ha