Kids Detained in AZ Provides Window Into Totally F*cked US Immigration System

The issue of immigrant children being detained in immigrant detention centers is not exactly a new story. But this past week, an influx of children from Central America who were detained while trying to cross into the U.S. has drawn new attention to the extreme and inhuman treatment undocumented immigrants face from U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border is up 92% from last year, and has overwhelmed the capacity of the Texas Border Patrol sectors that are apprehending them. Thus, Texas Border Patrol has begun flying undocumented children to Nogales, Arizona, a city which straddles the Arizona border with the Mexican State of Sonora. Arizona Border Patrol and FEMA have teamed up to house these children temporarily in a warehouse that hasn’t held people in years, while they figure out where the children can live while awaiting their immigration hearings.

Most of the kids that are detained are sixteen and seventeen years old, and have made the journey from Central America through a dangerous network of train tops, vans and trucks. Some are as young as a year old. Some are pregnant or accompanying their own children. Many report they are fleeing violence and poverty, or attempting to find family in the US. Many news outlets have tried to spin the story as kids rushing to the US because of newly lax immigration policies. This is a sensationalist tactic designed to inspire fear in the American public and promote the idea that immigration policy has to be as severe as possible to deter people from crossing. It also seems to be straight-up wrong. Most of these kids reportedly don’t seem to have any idea about US immigration policy, lax or not — they’ve just heard it’s safer than where they are coming from.

A bus carrying detainees enters the Nogales Border Patrol Station. via AZ Central

A bus carrying detainees enters the Nogales Border Patrol Station. via AZ Central

The kids being held in Arizona are being processed and handed into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are likely to be placed in another temporary shelter while they await their immigration hearings. While these children are not kept in official detention centers, their shelters are elusive and their operations are highly secretive. Immigrant children are also still very likely to face deportation. Dorien Ediger-Seto, from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, pointed out,

“One important thing to note is that these children are still being placed into deportation proceedings. Because there is no public defender system in immigration court, children who cannot pay an attorney are often forced to navigate the deportation system on their own, even after the immediate issue of their custody is resolved. …immigration law is extremely complex, and both children and adults without attorneys can have trouble navigating the system and accessing legal relief.”

There is no question that thousands of kids being held in a warehouse in Arizona is a terrible situation, but it’s important to note that this is an extreme moment for a system that is constantly shuttling children and adults around the country, detaining them until their cases are heard in immigration court, where neither adults nor children are entitled to legal representation. A new report from the ACLU details the routine abuses and injustices of the immigrant detention system, and how private prison companies funnel money into political efforts to detain and incarcerate undocumented people that pose no threat.

Given what the ACLU report reveals about the deep connections between federal immigration systems and private prisons, it would be unsurprising if the public attention directed at the children and families in Arizona leads to the creation of more detention centers that are specifically set up for children and families. This will make ICE and Border Patrol better equipped to incarcerate kids and families, and make their deportation more likely. Any expansion of border and immigration infrastructure increases the capability of ICE and Border Patrol to police immigrant bodies (and perceived immigrant bodies – many of the policies in place result in widespread and legally backed racial profiling, particularly of Latin@s, whether they are documented or not.) This also creates unique challenges for LGBT immigrants, who experience major discrimination within the immigrant detention system, and increased hate violence and discrimination when living in American communities.

While all of this goes down in Arizona, a new Supreme Court ruling has determined that people who apply for visas with their families as children, but who turn 21 while their applications are being processed, must start the process all over again and reapply. So at the exact moment that numbers of kids trying to enter the U.S. hits new highs, a new obstacle is erected for kids trying to enter with documentation. This will almost certainly keep more families divided, and end up subjecting even more people to detention and deportation.

If you are as pissed about all of this, there are tons of immigrant justice activists and organizations working against deportation and detention policies and for justice and dignity, including the Detention Watch Network’s 34-Day Campaign to end quotas that drive the arrest and detention of immigrants.


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  1. I love you so much for writing this. I’m very passionate about this issue. I’m French, and the way we deal with immigration here is fucked up too. Tougher immigration maws do not stop immigrants from coming in our countries. But it sure does contribute to their death, trafficking, abuse and tragedy.

    Rock on AS. You’re my kind of people.

  2. I live in Tucson and have been following the story closely. I fully agree that the children are being kept in less-than-ideal living conditions. Could more be done? Absolutely. But please keep in mind the very real logistical problems that are contributing to this. At present, the US does not have enough adequate facilities to house immigrant children and families. In Tucson, there have been attempts to convert apartment complexes into living facilities, but acquiring the necessary permits could take months. In other places, the housing shortage has been addressed by opening up military bases to house these immigrants. Top officials needs to come with practical solutions, and fast. They were not prepared to handle the spike in child border crossings, but now is the time to make changes so conditions will be better in the future.

  3. I cringe as I can just see how likely, almost inevitable, it is that policies will emerge to stall minor young adults’ applications for years until they come of age and then use that new fact as an excuse to deport them.

    It’s certainly what I seem to be hearing about in France, one of my home countries.

  4. “it would be unsurprising if the public attention directed at the children and families in Arizona leads to the creation of more detention centers that are specifically set up for children and families. This will make ICE and Border Patrol better equipped to incarcerate kids and families, and make their deportation more likely”

    ain’t that the truth, why didn’t they temporarily open Arizona military bases? They have the time/space/beds/money to put undocumented people in private prisons, but they don’t have the time/space/beds/money to put them in environments that fulfill their basic needs?

  5. The recent Times piece on Noemi Alvarez Quillay, a twelve year old Ecuadorian who killed herself when detained at the US/Mexico border, was timely for this recent (at least in the public mind) situation. My parents live in a tiny Southern town that has a significant population of both documented and undocumented Central American immigrants. My dad, a pediatrician, treats a lot of their kids (and a lot of the time, the adults, too) sort of under the table, because he speaks Spanish and my mom is Mexican and because literally no one else will. The outright discrimination they experience on this side of the border is honestly atrocious (the agriculture jobs in the area boil down to indentured servitude more often than not), so it’s horrifying that the treatment AT the border is even worse.
    There really needs to be an overhaul in legislation. Obama has deported more people during his administration than every other administration combined, and it’s embarrassing that Bush Sr. had infinitely superior immigration policies than Obama, especially because Obama was raised abroad and is the son of a non-American. I mean, really, dude. Get it together. I think he has some misplaced resentment about the whole birth certificate thing and is trying to overcompensate and put himself on the “us” side of “us vs them.” Gahhhhh.

  6. As a latina, this makes my heart hurt. I keep typing and deleting my feelings about this article; what can I even say? Maybe one day my fellow latinos and I will matter to the government. Until then, I mourn for us. This is such a tiny piece of such a huge problem. May we live to see it fixed.

  7. They are at Ft Sill…so close and I want to go love them and help them.I want to foster or adopt and I know I can’t be alone in that desire… It is a very secretive operation and the INS, ICE, BP are not offering ways to support or help these kids.Our foster care system is already strapped, I can’t imagine how our flimsy dhs would crumble if we had thousands more added to the roster. I believe our governor IS doing this for financial reasons because private prisons are a big deal for Oklahoma. BUT will the financial gain she receives ever be given to those that need it the most? I know as a nurse that these human beings need all the social services, counseling, dietary and medical management that the other state funded kids get, I really hope they’re being shown love because if they’re not, the violence that they fled MAY show up on this side of the border. they have to be loved and educated for that cycle to stop…I sure hope they’re getting what they need.

  8. “a new Supreme Court ruling has determined that people who apply for visas with their families as children, but who turn 21 while their applications are being processed, must start the process all over again and reapply.”

    This is interesting for me to read. After YEARS of trying to become a legal resident in this country along with my brother, so many hurdles and thousands of dollars spent – it pisses me off so much.

    First, we were due to get our green cards in 1996. But somehow the INS lost all of our paperwork and we had to start completely over.

    So, finally, around 2001 (I was 19, my brother 21) and repeating the whole damn process, and again, my mother paying all those thousands of dollars, we were finally happy to get it over with. As we walked into the INS building to get our Mexican passports signed and stamped so that we could legally leave the country (the green cards were to be mailed later) – my brother, right then and there, was informed that he was no longer qualified for a visa because he turned 21 that year. Suffice it to say, we were pretty pissed. He left the office in tears.

    I just…ugh. I hate that not much has changed.

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