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Human Rights Watch Report on Detention of Unaccompanied Minors

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 98122959 (posted Dec. 29, 1998)"

INS Violates Rights of Detained Children

In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch charges the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with violating the rights of unaccompanied children in its custody. The report finds that roughly one-third of detained children are held in punitive, jail-like detention centers, even though most children in INS custody are being detained for administrative reasons while their case is pending, not as a punishment for criminal behavior. Approximately 5000 unaccompanied children are detained by the INS each year.

Human Rights Watch focused its report on a Pennsylvania facility that the INS claims is one of the best in the country. However, the report found that too many children are locked up in prison-like conditions with juveniles accused of murder, rape and drug trafficking, where they are forbidden to speak their native language, instructed not to laugh, and, according to several interviewees, even forced to ask permission to scratch their noses. Human Rights Watch found that some children are strip searched and restrained by handcuffs during transport, and denied basic rights to privacy.

"These children have not been charged with any crime," says Jo Becker, an author and researcher for the report. "Yet a significant number are being locked up in harsh, prison-like conditions where they are unable to communicate with anyone around them. Many don't understand what is happening to them, or why."

The report also charges the INS with failing to provide children with adequate information about access to legal representation or their legal rights, and transferring children without the knowledge of their attorneys or families. Many children are denied information about their detention or education in a language that they can understand and may be confined for months at a time without direct access to a single person with whom they can converse in their own languages.

Human Rights Watch also charges that the INS has a troubling conflict of interest, since children are subject to the enforcement of immigration laws by the same agency responsible for their care and protection. Human Rights Watch urges the U.S. government to end this conflict of interest by assigning the care-taking function to an appropriate child welfare agency, which would have custody of the child while the INS assesses their immigration status.

"These children are arrested, imprisoned and frequently deported, all by the same agency that is charged with caring for them and protecting their legal rights," says Lois Whitman, executive director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. government should assign the care of these children to an agency that will act in the best interest of the child."

The report, Detained and Deprived of Rights: Children in the Custody of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is based on on-site visits and interviews conducted at the Berks County Youth Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. An earlier Human Rights Watch investigation documented conditions of detention for children held by the INS in Arizona and California. Both investigations found numerous violations of children's rights, in breach of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. statutory provisions, INS regulations, the terms of court orders binding on the INS, and international law.

Human Rights Watch calls on U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner to ensure immediate and full compliance with all national laws and regulations as well as with internationals tandards concerning detention conditions for children. The organization also urges that:

  • unaccompanied children awaiting determination of their status should not be detained, except in rare instances to protect the safety of the child;

  • the INS immediately cease to place unaccompanied children in state juvenile justice or criminal justice facilities, or in other facilities with prison-like conditions;

  • the US Congress should not charge the same agency with the care of unaccompanied, undocumented children and also the enforcement of the immigration laws against them;

  • all children in INS custody should have access to legal representation at government expense;

  • children should receive prompt, regular and thorough legal information in a language they can understand;

  • the INS should provide a sufficient number of trained interpreters at facilities housing unaccompanied children, as required by the shifting language populations in the facilities.

For more information and the full report please visit the Human Right Watch's Web Site at

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