A record number of unaccompanied immigrant youth are making their way across the U.S. border from Mexico and being sent to detention centers for lengthy periods of time.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based immigrant advocacy group, collected data that shows at least 1,366 immigrant children from 2008 to 2012 were held by the federal government at adult facilities for three or more days, according to Mother Jones. One thousand children were detained longer than a week and five kids were kept longer than a year. One child detained at age 15 was held for more than a decade.
Unaccompanied immigrant minors are required to be transferred within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. The only time this rule is sidestepped is if the detainee poses a threat to national security.
“The government is failing to provide even the most basic protection for children,” said Executive Director of NIJC Mary Meg McCarthy. “Our system has designed a place that’s age-appropriate for immigrant children, and that’s not adult detention facilities that are jails.”
The records were released by the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was filed. The NJIC received information on 30 of the more than 200 adult immigration detention facilities in the United States.
"The immigration detention enforcement system is broken," McCarthy told Mother Jones. "If there are 1,300 kids over a period of four years in adult detention facilities, there's a real problem. Because that's not what the law says. That's not what's supposed to be happening. As a country, we shouldn't be detaining these kids, period, but especially not in adult facilities."
The data DHS released shows 19 children were held in adult facilities for more than 180 days. A 1997 federal settlement restricts undocumented children to settings appropriate for their age and needs and states that juveniles cannot be held for more than 24 hours.
McCarthy said many of the child detainees are never given legal counsel. A Los Angeles Times article from 2012 said that detained, unaccompanied immigrant children have "no right to a court-appointed attorney in asylum proceedings."
"They become disappeared in the system," McCarthy said. "But when you're detaining more than 400,000 people a year in 200 jails, and you have all these different people involved in this mammoth system without any due process protections, it just lends itself to this type of problem. It just cries out for reform."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a written statement in response to the NJIC report denying that any children are held unlawfully or housed in adult facilities:
“ICE takes the responsibility of caring for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) seriously and as of 2008, unaccompanied minors are not permitted to be detained by ICE for any longer than is necessary for Health and Human Services (HHS) to take custody of the minor. It is against ICE policy to detain an unaccompanied minor for more than 72 hours and in no instance will an unaccompanied minor be housed in an ICE detention facility while awaiting transfer to HHS. Unaccompanied minors are carefully kept in staging facilities away from the general population and minors are only held in ICE custody when accompanied by their parents in a facility designed to house families.”