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'Elians' Behind Bars

February 27, 2002

For all his hardships, Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez caught a lucky break once he reached U.S. shores. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, feeling the political weight of Florida's Cuban Americans, took pains to ensure the boy's well-being while warring factions battled over him in court.

Edwin Munoz is a far more typical example of what happens to young people who arrive in this country illegally. Munoz's parents abandoned him in his native Honduras before he was 7. A cousin who was supposed to care for him beat him with a wet rope, scarring his chest and arms. Seven years later, having walked and hitchhiked to the United States, the frightened boy was caught by the INS and held in a juvenile jail in San Diego for six months with violent criminals.

Last year there were more than 4,000 children under INS custody, many of them having fled such evils as child prostitution, bonded labor, forced recruitment as soldiers or female genital mutilation. The INS slammed almost half of them behind bars. Imagine the confusion of a child who after perhaps taking courage and comfort from images of Lady Liberty finds himself locked up with gangbangers and carjackers.

No asylum seeker should be subject to this kind of treatment, least of all a child. The fastest way to remedy this form of child abuse is to expedite a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that aims to ensure good treatment for unaccompanied children in the custody of the U.S. government. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration will hold a hearing on the issue Thursday.

Under current law, the INS is responsible for the apprehension, detention and deportation of unaccompanied children. In addition, the INS is in charge of their care, placement and legal protection. These are conflicting responsibilities. Feinstein's legislation would establish an Office of Children's Services within the Department of Justice to take care of the children, leaving the enforcement part to the INS.

The bill would also establish minimum standards for detention, custody and release of children to make sure they are detained at appropriate facilities. It would provide minors access to legal counsel and a guardian to protect their rights and, when suitable, strive for family reunification or other alternative placement. This is the least a nation of immigrants can do for these vulnerable aspirants to the American dream.

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