As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have been doing some work at the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry for several unaccompanied alien minors who need representation. Briefly explained, Catholic Charities helps children under the age of 18 who have been detained for being illegal immigrants and not being in the custody of a legal guardian. Once a child gets picked up by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (affectionately known as “ICE”) officer, they are put into a detention center in certain places around the country. One such place is at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, about a 1hr train ride north of Manhattan.
Catholic Charities helps these unaccompanied minors in three specific ways. First, they try to assist the recently arrived kids understand the nature of the proceedings and the reason why they are there. This is given in an hour-long orientation called a Know Your Rights presentation, where the minor will get general information about his or her rights, immigration law in the US generally and some examples of ways that minors and others immigrants can stay legally in the United States. Second, Catholic Charities tries to do a basic intake of the client, asking about their particular personal history and case. Last, Catholic Charities, while not technically representing the minor will try to help seek representation for the child, usually a pro bono lawyer either from Catholic Charities itself or perhaps from another friendly organization.
For the past month and a half of my internship, I have gone every week up to Dobbs Ferry to speak with some of the detained children. The conditions that these kids are put in is quite surprising. While they are not in a prison, their freedom is greatly restricted. They live in a large dorm style house where there are classrooms and administrative staff watching over them at all times. Additionally, there is a locking mechanism on the house doors that prevent anyone from entering or leaving the house without the permission of the house master. There are also several security guards and people watching over them at all times. Certain houses have higher security ratings than others based on whether the minor has a previous criminal history or not. Each of these kids is told when to get up, when to go to class downstairs where they learn English and other subjects. They are told when they can play or go outside, and only with express permission.
The restrictive nature of their housing arrangement made me think about the nature of immigration itself. Immigration, as it stands now, is a civil proceeding between the government of the US and the person being deported. For this reason, immigrants are not entitled to the right to an attorney even though they may be detained for several hours or even days. Doesn’t it seem wrong to detain someone for so long in an immigration proceeding and put them in one of these houses without giving them a right to an attorney? Doesn’t it seem like its more of a criminal situation than a civil one? Yeah most government employees will tell you that this is not criminal because the worst consequence is getting taken back to your country of origin and that you can’t be put in jail for just being an immigrant. Yeah sure, but doesn’t being locked up for all the time until you get deported seem a lot like punishment. Most detention centers for immigrants are held in the same place as the prison, in case you didn’t know.
Additionally, the decisions on who to detain and who to deport, made by policemen and judges alike, are highly arbitrary and sometimes fairly capricious.
The following is an account that one child gave me in an interview. For the purposes of confidentiality, any identifying information has been changed or altered so as to protect him:
Juan was three years old when he came to the United States. He was born in Mexico to his two parents, both of Mexican citizenship. Juan doesn’t even really remember coming to the United States. His earliest memories are of him in Phoenix, Arizona with his mom and dad. He continued to live with them until they moved to Queens in New York.
One day while he was riding his bike, he passed by a police officer, who turned around his patrol car and stopped Juan. He told Juan that he was riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street. He asked him for ID. Juan didn’t have any. He was taken to jail where he was locked up for a few hours. Then, half-asleep he heard his last name being called by the guards. In a stupor he walked to the front of the line and they led him to the patrol car and took him to Immigration court. In court he was asked for his full name. When they realized that he was not the person that they had wanted and that they had mixed up his name with another inmates, they decided to run his name in the system anyway. There they found that he too was an illegal immigrant and so he was put in proceedings.
So now this kid who has lived almost his entire life in the U.S., speaks English better than Spanish, and was picked up on the street for no real apparent reason other than the fact that he might have “looked suspicious”, will have to face being deported and being thrown back into a life he has no idea about: a life in Mexico.
I tell this story because it has happened to countless immigrants and immigrant families. I realize that many immigrants struggle for rights and for an ability to simply live where they have established themselves.
With this struggle in mind, I obviously cannot help but see the other side. Many might say that illegal immigrants take away jobs from U.S. citizens; others say that immigrants do the jobs that no one else will. I think both are true because immigrants get paid much less to do the worst jobs generally speaking. (I’m talking about the most common immigrant worker as opposed to the professional immigrant worker here.) But if those immigrants were taken away, then maybe employers would be forced to raise wages so that U.S. Citizens who would otherwise not work would. This in turn seems like it might allow immigrants who do come to this country protection from abusive work practices that prevent them from getting paid a living wage and from getting protection for human rights violations in the work place. But then you have the problem of immigrants using public services like educations and health without paying any taxes. Some California hospitals have had to close because of so many illegal immigrants stiffing the hospital for the bill. (http://www.federalobserver.com/archive.php?aid=9572)
It all seems to have an effect. But the biggest hold on all of this is really the employers themselves, who dominate D.C. and control the politicians to stall any legislation that would force them to have to pay more to their workers. Most corporations depend on immigrant workers. Just think about all those undocumented Chipotle people that got laid off a few months ago.
Corporations depend on it. So really is this whole immigration system meant to fail immigrants? Is it meant to just be some way for congress to justify sending someone to their home country just because we feel like it?
These issues are tough to deal with but in the end I think that we have to just let more people become documented immigrants in this country. But the difficult task is protecting people human rights and basic freedoms in the meantime. We shouldn’t treat immigrants so radically different from our own citizens just because they were born in another country, should we? Human rights relies on the fact that we all have one thing in common: we are all human. Bridging the gap between us and them needs to start with immigration. Changing our policies with immigration will radically change how we perceive others and how others perceive us on an international scale. I’d probably need more to back up that statement but for right now I’m going to leave it at that and hopefully you all will agree and see what else is out there. Hopefully these issues will come to the spotlight more as immigration issues become more important in this country.