WASHINGTON - More than 1,300 minors - including several dozen 14 or younger - were held for days in immigration detention facilities for adults over a four-year period when the Obama administration ramped up deportations, according to a new report by an advocacy group.
The proposed immigration overhaul in the Senate aims to improve detention conditions for immigrants without legal status, but critics say the stiffer enforcement of border security will create additional backlogs for already overcrowded facilities.
Under federal regulations, those under the age of 18 should be transferred out of adult facilities within 72 hours. But records from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's enforcement-and-removal operations, which were released to the Chicago-based National Immigration Justice Center under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, show that at least 1,366 minors were held in adult facilities for more than three days during the four years before Sept. 30, 2012.
"Unaccompanied minors are not permitted to be detained by ICE for any longer than is necessary for HHS (Health and Human Services) to take custody of the minor," Peter Boogaard, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
The department takes the "responsibility of caring for unaccompanied alien children seriously," he said.
The report, which cites data from 30 immigration detention centers in 13 states, shows at least 386 immigrants under 18 were held in county jails, private prisons or other adult facilities for more than one month. Fifteen minors were held for more than six months.
"That is really, really troubling," said Amy Fettig, an attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Minors held in adult prisons are often placed in solitary confinement to protect them from other inmates, she said.
Most of the minors held longer than 72 hours were at least 15 years old, according to the report. Two were under 10, however, and 37 were 14 or younger.
About 3,800 minors are now held in juvenile detention facilities, according to the Women's Refugee Commission, a legal aid organization based in New York City that monitors conditions for women and children held in immigration detention facilities.
According to federal policies, children detained by immigration agents should be moved as quickly as possible to facilities run by Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Those centers provide schooling, access to immigration lawyers and greater safety because only other minors are held there. But a surge in the number of children entering the United States from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has overloaded those facilities.
"Nobody has seen where these kids are being held because we haven't known," said Jennifer Podkul of the Women's Refugee Commission. "These numbers are high, and we don't know what kind of services these kids are getting."
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigration Justice Center, called the report startling. "These children were isolated from access to legal counsel and may have been denied protections under U.S. law," she said.
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"Nobody has seen where these kids are being held because we haven't known. These numbers are high, and we don't know what kind of services these kids are getting."
Jennifer Podkul, Women's Refugee Commission