By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
This week I interviewed Susan Watson, an energetic attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) which has offices in Weslaco, Edinburg, and Harlingen.
Braune: Your work has brought you into contact with special undocumented youth being detained by the government, “unaccompanied minors.” I suppose that means they came to this country by themselves. They sound like very brave youth, but they are still youth and must be pretty scared and maybe confused. Could you tell us something about these young people and how you meet up with them?
Watson: Unaccompanied minors (UACs) are children under 18 without legal status and who have no parent or legal guardian present. Of the estimated 8,000 UACs who enter the United States each year, most come from Central America or Mexico. All of the UACs I’ve met come from horrific situations: some are orphaned, sometimes because their parents were killed in gang violence or by military factions; some were abused or abandoned by parents; others lived in abject poverty. They are, indeed, extremely brave: the stories I’ve heard about their lives and their harrowing trips to reach the U.S. include things most of us could never imagine.
We at TRLA first became involved with UACs last year. We were contacted by immigration counsel for several children who were victims of sexual assault in a shelter facility in Nixon, Texas. The children needed representation for civil rights and other claims arising from their treatment there. Because TRLA has a long history of fighting for the poor and the vulnerable, our group was a good choice — and these kids probably are the most vulnerable and least likely to be able to seek justice on their own.
Braune: Does ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) take charge of these youth? And how are they treated? I suppose there is a range: some are treated poorly and some are treated better. Right?
Watson: In 2002, the responsibility for caring for UACs while they are in immigration proceedings was delegated to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. This was done to separate the responsibilities of caring for these children (ORR) from prosecuting the immigration cases (ICE). Although some children are treated pretty well, far too many receive sub-standard care and are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Braune: A related matter. If teens in custody turn 18, are they just thrown into the world to fend for themselves or are they deported? If they have no family with them and have just been released from the juvenile centers, they must be pretty distressed. Do they get some help from the government for health care, counseling, education, job hunting assistance, etc.?
Watson: Detained UACs are transferred to adult detention facilities on their 18th birthdays, and then they may be eligible for release on bond. But you are right — they are just turned out on the street even if they have been in ORR custody for years. Until their immigration case is decided, most have no ability to work legally, are ineligible for public benefits, and find no system in place to provide them with basic human needs, such as shelter, food, and clothing. If bond is denied, the person remains in ICE detention until the immigration case is completed.
Braune: I’ve heard that the Rio Grande Valley facilities are better than others around the country. Why is that?
Watson: I can think of two reasons why these UAC facilities — about six are in the Valley — are generally better than others. First, and without meaning to sound stereotypical, the Valley is primarily Hispanic, and children are cared for by people from similar cultural backgrounds, Spanish speakers who understand the important cultural differences among regional groups.
The second important reason is that members of ProBAR (South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project) of Harlingen, visit the facilities regularly, meeting with every child. Having an independent group in constant contact with the children significantly decreases the likelihood that abuse will occur or that it will go undetected.
Braune: Lastly, is there one specific thing you would change immediately?
Watson: If I could change only one thing, it would be to require independent monitoring and contact with all UACs, much like ProBAR does in the Valley. In addition to deterrence and early discovery of abuse or other care issues, having “outsiders” come in on a regular basis also provides children with knowledge of their rights and an assessment of potential immigration relief. Finally, it increases the possibility of getting pro bono legal representation, which dramatically affects a child’s ability to present a strong case in immigration court.
Braune: Thanks, counselor, for your time today and your important work.