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Kids, Shackles and Shame

June 26, 2003

Judging by the harshness of his treatment, Ernst Poulard must have done something horrible to the United States. After his mother, a legal resident in Florida, petitioned successfully to have him join her from Haiti, 17-year-old Ernst fled the island by boat. Because he arrived on U.S. soil in December 2001 without a visa, immigration officials locked him up in Florida, then jailed him in Pennsylvania. They kept him for six months with thieves and other miscreants and subjected him to strip searches and the deprivations of detention.

Then Ernst got lucky: His case attracted the attention of Amnesty International and others who got him released to his mother. But because of the circumstances of his entry, he risks deportation, alone, to Haiti.

His ordeal is all too common. Each year, the United States detains about 5,000 children after they arrive unaccompanied and without proper visas. Some are fleeing war. Others seek to escape abusive homes. But all too often, their suffering continues in this country.

Amnesty International says a survey it made recently shows that only a fraction of these kids get access to attorneys; many undergo prolonged detention. Authorities throw some into solitary confinement or jail them with young American cons. Most are subjected to shackles and strip searches.

Congress should end this mistreatment by passing legislation (S 1129), introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to protect vulnerable young people and ensure their humane treatment in federal custody.

Congress last year approved an earlier Feinstein measure to transfer the care of these children from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Health and Human Services. This, unfortunately, occurred as part of a rushed enactment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and many important policy-related reforms in Feinstein's bill didn't make it.

Her new bill would guide federal agencies and ensure that the young be put only in appropriate settings. It would bar officials from employing punitive measures such as handcuffing, shackling and solitary confinement.

Her measure also recognizes how daunting asylum claims and other immigration issues can be for kids and requires legal representation for them. That's only fair, and it's the kind of action a nation of laws should stand behind.

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