The plight of underage, undocumented children in U.S. Immigration custody

Pacific Standard reports: In July 2010, Susan J. Terrio, an anthropologist at Georgetown University, visited an immigration shelter in Southern California. The shelter’s staff were discussing the case of a 17-year-old Somali girl, Hanadi, who had been in their custody for seven months. In Somalia, Hanadi’s father had been killed by militants, and her brother had disappeared, likely a victim of fighters from Al Shabab. As a young teen, Hanadi fled to Kenya, and, eventually, with the help of a smuggler, to Panama. Immigration authorities in Panama detained her for six months, after which she traveled to the United States, where she was detained again by U.S. immigration authorities.

At the time of Terrio’s visit, Hanadi had begun to show signs of “mental deterioration”: She cursed at another detainee, pounded on tables, and in one instance threatened suicide. The shelter’s staff believed she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and recommended that she take psychiatric medication, which she refused. They also suggested that Hanadi be transferred to a more sophisticated residential treatment center. Terrio had visited a similar center earlier that year, where she met heavily sedated detainees who were suffering from severe depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders.

Most immigration shelters fall on a spectrum between locked houses and prisons, and children like Hanadi are not free to leave. Hanadi wanted to stay with a cousin in the U.S. but had been unable to find him. Although she was a good candidate for a claim of political asylum, the government was entitled to hold her, with a few restrictions, until her case was resolved—simply because she was a minor. After the meeting, Terrio listened while Hanadi and a staff member discussed the idea of moving to a group home. Hanadi, Terrio writes in her new book Whose Child Am I?, “began to sob”:

I don’t want group home. I want freedom. Not fair. Two years. I have no life. In Somalia good life. Now not better life. Said what I wanted. Said I don’t want to be here. They say, “Be patient.” Why? They think if send me to another house, then OK. NOT OK. … I’m not crazy. I just want freedom.

Several days later, Hanadi was transferred to a therapeutic shelter, after which Terrio lost track of her. [Continue reading…]

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