NEW YORK – Trekking on foot and by bus, 17-year-old Alfredo Sanchez fled Guatemala into the United States to escape an abusive father. But his new life here hasn't exactly been the American dream.
Sanchez has been transferred among nine juvenile facilities since he was caught entering the country along the Mexico-Texas border in June 2001. He is one of an estimated 5,000 illegal immigrant minors who enter the country every year, a number that has doubled since 1997.
But thanks to a provision in the new Homeland Security bill, which President Bush signed into law on Monday, refugees like Sanchez will now be placed in the custody of child professionals rather than the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"We take this as a complete victory — the conflict of interest was our primary concern and that has been taken care of," said Andrew Morton, a lawyer who works on behalf of refugee minors.
Within 72 hours of their capture, unaccompanied alien minors will now be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch within the Health and Human Services Department. ORR already works with immigrants who have been granted asylum, helping them resettle and find jobs.
"The people [at ORR] are refugee professionals and child welfare professionals," Morton said.
For Morton and others, the biggest problem was the INS having conflicting responsibilities involving the unaccompanied alien minors.
"Let the INS prosecute the children, but they shouldn't also be the agency charged with the daily decisions of what's in the child's best interest as well," Morton said. "The prosecutor is also the legal guardian? That's clearly a conflict of interest."
Where minors are held once detained has been an ongoing problem, according to activists.
"With very few exceptions, the INS doesn't hold the minors in INS facilities," Morton said. "They have government contracts with local juvenile jails and shelters, which results in a lot of the detainees getting mixed in with the general population of delinquents."
But some troubled and violent youths are better off in more secure locations, according to government officials.
"A number of juveniles we encounter do have criminal histories and behavioral problems that require them to be in detention-type facilities," said INS spokesman Russ Bergeron.
And only about a third of the children in custody are placed in such facilities, Bergeron maintained. While some are put into juvenile detention as an interim solution, "the vast majority of juveniles do not … in 2001, 32 percent spent some time in detention."
But that's not good enough, argued advocates of the illegal immigrant minors.
"What's lacking is individual decision on behalf of each child," said Wendy Young, director of government relations for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "These kids shouldn't be institutionalized for as often as they are, and some get transferred all over the country."
Activists also want to see more legal representation for the minors, an issue that is not addressed by the Homeland Security law.
Most of the minors who illegally enter the country — about 60 percent — are processed by the legal system without representation, according to Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center.
"We're still going to work to get them lawyers," said Morton, "but we were most concerned about the abusive custody."