New York’s most diverse borough is about to gain another round of newcomers: Immigrant teens, here on their own and without legal documentation, who’ve been snagged by immigration authorities. In mid-November, child welfare agency Children’s Village will open a 12-bed shelter in Flushing, Queens for immigrant youth who have no parents here and are waiting to settle legal paperwork, the first of its kind in the state.
The shelter will bring the total number of such beds to 660 nationwide. While youth being smuggled in or overstaying a visa is not a new phenomenon, tighter border patrols and immigration surveillance after September 11th have led to a surge in the detention of such teens. Since 2002, the number of unaccompanied alien children apprehended by the U.S. government has jumped from 3,990 to 6,200—an increase of more than 50 percent—and is expected to increase another 20 percent by next fall. On average 15 years old, most come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Until recently, unaccompanied alien children were held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With only 360 appropriate shelter beds available nationwide under the INS, many youth ended up in juvenile detention facilities, without access to interpretation or legal assistance, and mingling with children who had committed violent crimes.
In March 2003, the Unaccompanied Alien Children Protection Act transferred the program from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS now administers the program’s $35 million in contracts, including one with the new Queens shelter.
“Before, children were in the locked facilities without anyone who could speak their languages. Sometimes they could be there as long as two years,” said Susan Baukhages, spokesperson for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a national humanitarian organization that helps HHS place children in care. Now, said Baukhages, more eligible children are sent to suitable shelters according to their language and religious backgrounds. “Instead of being in jail, they will be in foster care,” said Baukhages.
Enter Children’s Village, a child welfare veteran based in Westchester. Their Flushing shelter is slated to offer an array of special services, including bilingual education and counseling. They’ve even managed to set up some legal help for their incoming clients. With their immigration status in limbo, most kids face a complicated litigation process that can either lead to their release from custody or see them deported back to their home countries.
Under the current system, youth navigate that on their own far too often, said Baukhages. While a bill calling for free legal services for unaccompanied alien children has been passed by the Senate and is pending in the House, there’s nothing that automatically provides legal help to such youth. “Kids are now going before an immigration judge by themselves. They don’t know what to say. It’s a scary situation,” said Baukhages. “If you were a 12-year-old, how would you feel?”