Take care of children who reach our shores

October 03, 2002|By Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr.

MY NEIGHBOR'S 7-year-old just started second grade. She's about 3 feet tall, weighs about 50 pounds and is missing two front teeth. She looks forward to learning cursive writing soon.

As I watch her kiss her mother and father goodbye and board the school bus, I can't help thinking about another little 7-year-old, Aishat, who kissed her father goodbye at an airport in Nigeria and got on an airplane bound for John F. Kennedy Airport.

Aishat's mother was supposed to meet her, but she was in the United States illegally and didn't show up. Aishat lacked the proper documents to enter the United States, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service held her.

Instead of going to second grade, Aishat spent 15 months in a juvenile detention center wondering why her mommy didn't come for her.

The system in place today within the INS is self-defeating at best. The agency is charged with prosecuting, defending and protecting young illegal immigrants such as Aishat. In most cases, it gets failing marks on its handling of children.

Each year, about 5,000 foreign children land in the lap of the INS. The average age is 15, but some are as young as 18 months. Most come from Latin America, but some come from distant places such as Africa and China.

Upon arrival, some children are placed with temporary foster parents or housed in group homes, but nearly one-third are incarcerated. The average length of detention is three months, but some have been detained for years.

The system is backlogged and the process is complicated. Most children don't have legal representation during immigration proceedings.

Many appear before an immigration judge not understanding why they are there or what they have done wrong. The children wait and wonder why America treats them so harshly.

Homeland security legislation passed in the House and now pending in the Senate would entrust these children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has experience in handling foreign children. Each child would have a temporary guardian to look out for his or her interests and facilitate the appointment of pro bono legal counsel. This makes sense. The INS is not in the child welfare business.

If children picked up by the INS pose no threat to security, they should be transferred to ORR for appropriate care while their fate is debated. I can't imagine my 7-year-old neighbor trying to navigate and negotiate her way unassisted through our complicated immigration laws and procedures.

There is concern that the White House is ambivalent about this issue, these children. There is fear that the part of the legislation that deals with the care and custody of the Aishats who come to America's borders seeking refuge will be stripped from the bill as political deals are made.

How America treats children sends a message to the world. President Bush and our elected officials must pay as much attention to the care and custody of the few vulnerable children who reach our shores alone as they do to the security and preparedness of our nation.

America must be merciful as well as mighty. That's what genuine, long-lasting homeland security means to me. Children are our future, and kids can't wait for justice.

Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr. is president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore.

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