Advocates Say Teen Migrants Need Help, Not Detention Facilities
NOEL KING, HOST:
Parts of Central America are torn by severe gang violence, and so we're seeing an uptick in the number of migrant teenagers crossing into this country. President Trump has said many of these kids are gang members themselves and they should be sent back. But as reporter Jessie Knadler reports, immigrant advocates say most of them just need help.
JESSIE KNADLER, BYLINE: Seth Michelson teaches poetry at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. And once a week, he would drive out to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How can I help you?
SETH MICHELSON: Seth Michelson here for poetry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, go on in.
MICHELSON: Thank you.
KNADLER: Almost 32,000 minors fled north last year from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala without their parents and were picked up at the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the law, they are allowed to apply for asylum here. Several dozen are being held at this maximum-security juvenile detention facility. Michelson thought poetry would help them process what they've been through - poverty, sexual trafficking, being targeted by gangs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
KNADLER: One boy's poem is titled "Olvido."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) With no reason to exist, I often forget that I am real, and this makes my soul ache.
KNADLER: The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement decides where to place these minors. The vast majority are released to family or shelters across the country while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration court. But about 200 a year are deemed dangerous, either to themselves or others, and detained, sometimes for years.
HOLLY COOPER: Children don't see an end to the detention in sight. So just retelling your story is traumatic. Then being in a cell is traumatic. Not knowing the end date of when you're going to be released I think really weighs heavy on the children.
KNADLER: Holly Cooper is co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis. She says many don't even understand why they're detained. Federal officials must give them an explanation, but Cooper says that could be a form letter that the kids can't even read.
COOPER: Of course, it's all in English, right?
KNADLER: These minors are in a legal no man's land. They are temporarily protected from deportation but don't have the same rights as U.S. citizens. They don't have a right to a court-appointed lawyer, so some represent themselves. The American Civil Liberties Union did win a case late last year when judges ruled a couple dozen minors were misclassified by federal officials as dangerous and released them. Lenni Benson is the director of New York Law School's Safe Passage Project, which works with the teens.
LENNI BENSON: I think a lot of kids that have come into the juvenile justice system now are just being labeled first and we'll figure it out later.
KNADLER: But Trump says that the violent MS-13 gang, which has ties in Central America, is exploiting this system. His administration wants to close loopholes that he says allow gang members to enter the country as unaccompanied alien children, or UACs. Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, also testified before Congress they're ramping up gang prevention.
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SCOTT LLOYD: The goal of this initiative is to equip UAC with the tools they need to stay safe from gangs like MS-13 and violence and to ensure that the UAC we release from our care do not pose a danger to our communities.
KNADLER: At the Shenandoah Juvenile Center in Virginia, there's another legal fight. A lawsuit alleges beatings and psychological abuse by guards. Officials at the center have denied the allegations. Professor Michelson says his poetry sessions helped the kids.
MICHELSON: Poetry gives them a language to think about what they've been through, who they are, who they'd like to be, in ways that are potentially transformative.
KNADLER: Late last year, he published a book of poetry from the kids called "Dreaming America." After that, officials at the center asked him not to return. Proceeds from sales go to a legal defense fund on their behalf. For NPR News, I'm Jessie Knadler in Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.