Lost in the System: Susan J. Terrio’s 'Whose Child Am I?'

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

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.

Over the past four years, the number of undocumented, unaccompanied children entering the U.S. has increased nearly 15-fold, from around 4,000 in 2011 to more than 60,000 last year. Unlike Hanadi, the majority are from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador, as well as Mexico. (Mexican children, though, are typically deported without lengthy stays in detention.) This surge, the result of catastrophic gang violence, poverty, and political instability in Central America, has been described as a crisis affecting the U.S., in part because last summer immigration authorities began running out of places in which to detain the children in their custody.

Much has been written about this crisis: about the violence in Central America and migrants’ difficult journey north through Mexico, and about whether some children have tried to game the system by making false refugee claims. (A recent United Nations survey of 400 child migrants found that close to half had “experienced violence or threats by organized crime groups” in their home countries, but in most cases being subjected to gang violence does not qualify a child for U.S. asylum status.) Like Hanadi, children are typically detained first by officers from Customs and Border Patrol and then transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of Health and Human Services. This transfer—from the custody of a law-enforcement agency to the custody of a social-services agency—has been required by law for undocumented children since 2002 and must be made within 72 hours. Many news stories about the child-migrant phenomenon end here. Very little has been written about what happens to children once they leave CBP custody and enter the broader detention bureaucracy.

Beginning in 2009, Terrio visited more than 20 secure detention facilities and shelters and interviewed hundreds of children, staff, attorneys, and immigration judges. Because the U.S. immigration system is frequently closed to journalists and researchers, Whose Child Am I? offers a rare, possibly singular look at how that system operates. Terrio's central question, the same one posed by the book's title, is who underage migrants actually belong to.

In 2011, Terrio met a Honduran man named Ernesto. At 16, in 2006, Ernesto decided to leave Honduras after years of abuse by his stepfather. Mexico’s war against drug cartels was just then exploding, and Ernesto’s journey north, mostly by foot, took two months. In northern Mexico, probably somewhere south of Laredo, Texas, he and a friend were kidnapped by the Zetas, Mexico’s most violent drug gang. (Nine of the migrants Terrio interviewed were kidnapped by the Zetas.) The Zetas demanded a $4,000 ransom from Ernesto’s family in Honduras and shot three other captives who refused to call relatives for money. They also raped two girls. After five days, during which Ernesto was beaten several times, he escaped and eventually crossed the border.

Many Western countries refuse to detain child migrants except in extreme circumstances. Why does the U.S. government, then, continue its detentions?

As Terrio and many other observers of U.S. immigration policy have noted, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border—there were around 4,000 Border Patrol agents in 1993, and more than 21,000 in 2012—has not coincided with a decrease in border crossings. But it has made the crossings more dangerous and complicated, and, in turn, provided robust employment for professional smugglers and drug gangs. On the American side of the Rio Grande, Ernesto jumped a train to San Antonio, broke his hand jumping off, and was apprehended by the Border Patrol. After six days at a CBP facility in Texas (Ernesto initially told agents he was 19, which delayed his transfer to ORR), he was sent to a minimum-security shelter. Soon after arriving, he was approached by a female staff member who offered him money and favors in exchange for sex. (The staff member was also accused of abusing other detainees.) “I didn’t want to, but I had no choice,” he told Terrio. The shelter staff did not believe that Ernesto had a claim to stay in the country, and urged him to agree to voluntary deportation. The night before he was scheduled to fly home, an FBI agent investigating sexual assault at the shelter learned that Ernesto had been a victim, and he was allowed to stay.

While the FBI investigated, Ernesto was transferred to another shelter in Texas, which he called “a house for bad kids.” The guards were rougher than those at the first shelter. After four months, he was placed in foster care. At 18, he aged out of foster care, but because his abuse case from the first shelter was unresolved, he was not allowed to enter society and was placed in a secure group home. The rules at the group home were similar to those he experienced at the Texas shelters: He needed permission to go outside or move about the house, and he was cited for using foul language. Children in shelters are under constant pressure to behave, Terrio writes. Shelter staff file incident reports when children act out, and these reports are considered relevant by judges evaluating relief requests; a child who incurs multiple incident reports risks being moved into a “staff-secure” or “secure” facility, where there is round-the-clock supervision while entertainment, movement, and free time are restricted. The threat of being “stepped up” to a more restrictive shelter is also used against migrants during relief proceedings.

Many Western countries refuse to detain child migrants except in extreme circumstances. Why does the U.S. government, then, continue its detentions? During the late 1980s and '90s, in response to a long-running lawsuit filed on behalf of an El Salvadoran teen named Jenny Lisette Flores, government attorneys and eventually the Supreme Court argued that detention was in the unaccompanied migrant child’s best interest: The government provided food, housing, and occasional schooling, and protected children from the various malign actors in the outside world. In 1997, the Flores suit was settled with a series of non-legislative reforms, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, which ended strip searches of minors, prevented them from being housed with adults, and mandated that they be held in the “least restrictive” setting or released to family. In limiting children’s time in CBP custody, Flores and other reforms over the past decade have greatly lowered the risk of abuse among detained children. But making detention more humane, Terrio argues, has allowed the government to sidestep the important question of whether the indefinite detention of children is ever appropriate in the first place.

Terrio believes that the rationale for maintaining the detention system has become political—a desire on the part of lawmakers and the executive branch to be seen as tough on undocumented migrants—rather than humanitarian, particularly in the past decade. She is blunt on this point: “In the post-9/11 period the federal government has used detention and deportation as harsh tools of social control against discrete, marginalized groups in our society,” she writes. Regardless, it is innate to detention of any kind that people in custody become helpless, while the people responsible for detaining them become obligated to provide their care. Whether the U.S. government is able to adequately care for non-citizen children, even in the relatively benign conditions of today's secure immigration shelters, is another obvious question Terrio poses. It would be hard to argue that the answer is yes.

In 2014, child migrants who entered ORR custody were released to family members in the U.S. in fewer than 40 days on average, though as many as 10 percent—including children like Ernesto and Hanadi—will remain for months or years. Perversely, children who have suffered the most coming to the U.S. are often more likely to act out, and thus get stepped up to more and more secure facilities, making their release less and less likely. Longer stays in custody inevitably raise the risk that children will age out and move to adult detention centers before they can be placed with family. (Terrio reports that some children have been removed from shelters to ICE prisons at midnight on their 18th birthdays.)

The federal government spends more than $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement. But even though immigration law is complicated and unintuitive, child migrants are not entitled to counsel, and in 2010, only 28 percent were represented by an attorney while detained. As more children have entered the system it is unlikely that this figure has improved. Nor do child migrants fare well in court, where immigration judges face average case loads three times that of their peers in the federal judiciary, of which they are not even members—they work for the executive branch. Such discrepancies, along with the mundane miscommunications, lost paperwork, and other mistakes common to large bureaucracies, make it is easy to see how children’s lives in ORR custody can turn into nightmares.

What is the government supposed to do with kids like Hanadi and Ernesto—migrants in the country without permission, whose parents or guardians are either dead or abroad, and who are at risk from traffickers and gangs? Because Whose Child Am I? is work of ethnography and not a polemic, it poses but doesn’t answer this question. Still, there are plausible policy responses. The existence of unaccompanied children in the first place is partly a function of U.S. policy: Many children, upon apprehension, are reluctant to admit that they have family in the U.S., for the well-founded fear that their families could be deported if identified. They are then classified at unaccompanied. Nor would as many children be forced to migrate unlawfully, or without parents, if the U.S. adopted a more flexible definition of who counts as a refugee. But the political roadblocks to amending either policy are obvious and probably insurmountable. A more modest reform like granting child migrants a right to government-funded counsel would make detention vastly more just, but that hardly seems likely either.

Shortly after Ernesto’s transfer to the second shelter, a U.S. official of Hispanic descent came to visit and promised that Ernesto would be granted legal status upon his release, probably as a result of the sexual assault at the first shelter. “I thought this was the only thing that matters,” he told Terrio. “Not the abuse but the papers.” But when Ernesto was transferred to foster care in Virginia, neither the social worker nor an attorney there could find any records of his case. "I didn’t know what to do. I had the card that the Latino guy in Texas gave me and I called him every day for two weeks. I was confused because he told me to call if I had a problem and then he never answered. Then the phone was cut.” It was only much later that Ernesto was able to leave detention after obtaining a U Visa (Terrio does not say how)—a document reserved for victims of trafficking or abuse, both of which he suffered.

In 2013, Terrio checked back with Ernesto. He had become religious, lost his job when his visa expired, then re-gained it when he received an extension. In 2006, his mother had taken out a mortgage to pay his smuggling fee to the Zetas. So that she wouldn’t lose the title to her home, Ernesto had spent the years since his release sending her money in Honduras. His future in the U.S. seemed uncertain. “Six years after entering the country,” Terrio writes, "he was still waiting for his legal status to be resolved and teetering on the edge of despondency."

Lead photo: Border Patrol Station, Fort Hancock, Texas. (Photo: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock)