The debate over illegal immigration has taken a new turn in recent months, as thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have appeared at the U.S. border — presenting officials here with challenges on how and whether to deport them, and how to humanely hold and track them while awaiting processing.
The crisis has reached into Pennsylvania. Some children have family in the state and are sent here while waiting process. And the federal government, after all, operates only one immigrant family detention center, in Berks County — but it can only house 96 people at most, and only for weeks or months at a time. There’s also been talk of opening a new center in Hazelton, Pa. The whole situation is increasingly becoming a political hot potato in Washington D.C.
Adam Solow is a Philadelphia immigration attorney who has seen the crisis begin to manifest itself in his practice. He spoke to Philly Mag recently about the situation. Some excerpts:
So the New York Times reports what is this deadly growing problem of unaccompanied children being sent North of the border from countries south of the border, and I understand that this is an issue you've seen pop up in your local immigration practice.
Yeah, we're starting to see more kids after their process at the border coming up to reunite with families.
What kind of problems is that presenting in terms of the normal immigration process then… as you're trying to shepherd these kids through the process?
Well, a couple things. One, 8-year-old, 10-year-old kids don't really understand what's going on with it most of the time, legally at least, he shows up in front of a judge, he shows up in front of an immigration officer and doesn't really understand why or what the process is really about. The adults that we work with, they do understand the process a little bit better. Explaining that sort of system to them and why they may have to go back to their country and why they may have to see judges, and there are police officers around them, it's tough.
When these kids are caught, are they allowed to stay with family during the process, or how are they held?
They try to reunite them with their closest family members if they have family members in the United States. Often times what they do, if not their parents who have already come here, then they'll have an uncle or a distant relative who can take them in. Often times their parents and distant relatives don't have legal status either. But they're supposed to try to reunite them with family as soon as possible.
What happens if they don't get reunited with family?
That's a good question. What'll happen is they'll usually stay in processing centers and they try to get representation for them in these processing centers that handle children and unaccompanied minors. They're run by the Office of Refugee and Resettlement, the ORR. And so they'll get legal services and they'll get social services in these centers. The ideal situation is to release them so somebody can take care of them so they're not in these centers months at a time.
Are the processing centers the kind of place you feel good about children being kept for any length of time?
There's one in Reading, Pennsylvania that's a cross between a jail and a school, I would say? They can't really leave that area, but they do have, in the ideal situation when there's not thousands of children flooding the border, those camps those offices are supposed to be like schools, they're not menacing, there's not posted guards, there's not barbed wire or anything like that. It's just they're places where these children can basically learn some English, go to school, get some services, while they wait to have their immigration cases heard before the immigration court – or whatever process that they're going through.
The Obama administration has famously tried to avoid exporting the children of illegal immigrants but these children are more specifically migrating on their own. how are they typically handling that?
Well this whole influx of unaccompanied minors has just started in the last couple months, so from what we've seen it looks like they're just overwhelming the system right now.
There's something called a Special Immigrant Juvenile Petition that you can file for an unaccompanied minor who's been abandoned or abused by the family, who basically comes here alone, it's called a Special Immigrant Juvenile Petition and that's a way they can get permanent legal status in the United States. Other times, some of them are refugees who are trying to get away from gangs or gang recruitment, and they might be filing asylum cases. Other times they don't have really a legal basis to stay here.
From what we're seeing, it really is paralyzing the whole immigration system, because these border patrol agents and courts have to handle this influx of unaccompanied minors that they haven't had to handle, since I've been practicing at least. So all the other cases, you've got your criminal immigrants, and your adult immigrants going through the deportation process, they cases are getting held up too because of this influx.
The feds say that more than 47,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the border since October. Do we have any sense of how many unaccompanied minors are being found or located in the Philadelphia area, the Pennsylvania area? Are we talking, like, dozens of cases? Hundreds of cases?
I don't know the exact numbers, in my practice we've seen an uptick. We would get maybe one or two of these kind of cases a year, and in the last year, we've gotten about, I'd say, about ten to twelve. I think those numbers are just going to rise. … . It breaks your heart to see these little kids getting dragged in front of judges, but they technically are in violation of the law, so it's a big problem.
How should these cases be handled, do you think?
I mean, legally they're very, very, very challenging cases. I think that the problem is bigger than the immigration courts and the immigration system. I think what's happening is that some immigrants head down to these Central American countries, and through the immigrant rumor mill they're being that if you're a kid and you show up in the United States, you're not going to be deported. That's not necessarily true.
The other problem is that it's an intractable problem, because you know, all the gang violence from Mexico, and the "narco" violence way to down Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, it's made these children's lives just miserable, and they're just fleeing for their lives and fleeing for a better life.
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