Will migrant kids lose access to child-welfare and legal specialists in rush to deport?

Center for Public Integrity

Child legal advocates are worried some Central American kids turning themselves in at the border could be returned to peril if Congress amends laws to speed up their repatriation to home countries.     

Changes that President Obama may seek in anti-trafficking laws — which were developed in recent years with bipartisan support — could give U.S. Border Patrol agents authority to “screen” these children to assess if they have a legitimate “credible fear” of being sent back to countries with high murder rates and rampant gang violence.  

Border Patrol agents’ ability to interview children and fairly assess if they face danger if returned to home countries has been criticized, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in July 2011.

Currently, detained Central American minors are supposed to be transferred to non-law-enforcement officials’ custody and shelters where they have access to legal advisers and trauma specialists who are trained to assess their histories and explain legal options to them in language minors can grasp.

Under changes being contemplated, kids could instead be put on a path to repatriation before they get a chance to talk to Spanish-speaking child-welfare specialists and fully understand that they have a right to appear before an immigration judge.  

Agents could assume a decisive role in assessing if kids are truly in need of refuge — and then begin proceedings to send them back, a prospect that worries advocates. If kids can’t talk to official government asylum officers or immigration judges, “they’re not going to get access to even ask for asylum,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer for migrant rights and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C.

The White House has not yet provided details of legal initiatives it might pursue to speed up the return of minors arriving on the border to their home countries. The administration plans to ask for “greater discretion” for the Department of Homeland Security to repatriate Central American minors more quickly, according to a letter President Obama wrote to congressional leaders.

Related: Class-action suit: Wrong to put kids into immigration court with no lawyers to help

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This story is part of Juvenile Justice. Scrutinizing controversial policies affecting young people at risk. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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