The 16-year-old Central American boy was on U.S. soil for just an hour when border patrol agents took him into custody. Traveling alone last April, the teen from Olancho, Honduras, made his way to Mexico and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on foot in hopes of reaching South Florida, where his illegal-alien brother had found work.
But with no claim for asylum, the curly-haired youth found himself at the International Children’s Center in Chicago four months later waiting to be deported.
“I wanted to go to Miami, but it didn’t work out for me,” he mumbled in Spanish with a shrug. His attorneys allowed him to be interviewed in their presence on the condition that he not be identified because he is a minor in federal custody.
With too few lawyers to assist the surging number of children entering the United States illegally without parents or guardians, immigration-reform advocates say many children are deported even if they have valid claims for asylum.
But now the Chicago center, which cares for about 300 youths each year, has become the testing ground for a program that could prevent that from happening.
Youths are paired with bilingual University of Chicago law students who serve as child-protection advocates. Fluent in Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin, the advocates work with lawyers to safeguard the child’s interests.
“What we want is for [the advocates] to learn the children’s stories and, by doing so, then help the attorneys understand whether or not the child might have a claim for relief,” said Maria Woltjen, director of the advocate program.
In the event that a child doesn’t have a claim for relief and must be deported, the advocates work to ensure the child has a safe environment to return to, she added.
About 7,800 unaccompanied children came under the care of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement in the 2006 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, and the office was preparing for an influx of 9,600 children.
The children at the Chicago shelter come from Mexico, Central America and beyond. Boys from Bangladesh or India sometimes share bunk beds with boys from Sierra Leone or Brazil. Girls stay in pink rooms down the hall.
Children from Latin American countries typically stay at the Chicago shelter for about 30 days, while Asian and Southeast Asian youths can spend up to four months there.
Many came to escape poverty, but others could be fleeing war-torn regions or persecution; some may have been trafficked to work in forced-labor conditions.
Dressed in T-shirts and sweat pants, the children shuffle between the many rooms in the mazelike shelter, a former nursing home near the city’s lakefront. The shelter opened in 1996 with 12 beds, but is now licensed to serve up to 70 children at a time. Doctors regularly visit to provide the children with basic medical care.
The children study English and basic life skills so they can better care for themselves and find employment if they are sent back home, said Martha Newton, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operates the center and more than 30 other shelters nationwide.
“Folks sometimes say, ‘Why would you teach them English?’ But if we look at a country like El Salvador, they have a growing tourism industry,” Miss Newton said.
For fun, the children gather in the building’s basement for Friday night dance parties and karaoke sets. They occasionally visit museums and nearby parks.
And here, interpreters do their best to uncover carefully guarded information that could play a pivotal role in helping the youngsters.
But getting them to open up often is the biggest obstacle.
“Oftentimes, [the children] don’t know what their claim is,” said lawyer Karina Ayala-Bermejo, who has volunteered at the ICC. “Many will tell you they left because of poverty. But if you dig deeper into their story, you’ll find out they may be qualified to stay here.”
Mrs. Woltjen said children often arrive in the United States having been coached to lie.
“They’ve either been coached by the smugglers, or they have been coached by family members, and it takes quite awhile before they will really share what is happening,” Mrs. Woltjen said. “My husband calls this place the ‘House of Secrets.’ ”
Children who have entered the United States illegally — often apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border or taken into custody at airports or in vehicles stopped along an interstate — have the right to obtain an lawyer, but not a court-appointed lawyer. As a result, children often go before a judge without representation — a huge disadvantage for those who cannot speak English.
“What you have is a wall between the child and his or her ability to achieve justice,” said Carolina Tapia-Ruano, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
In addition to seeking asylum, child-protection advocates can help reunite families.
The Honduran teen said 20 days passed before he could call his parents back home. He turned down an earlier opportunity to contact his illegal-alien brother in Miami.
“They told me to give them his number, but I didn’t want to give it to them. They said, ‘If you want to talk with him, give us the number,’ ” he said.
An advocate could have helped put the teen in contact with his relatives sooner, Mrs. Woltjen said.
A provision in the pending federal Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act would expand the Chicago advocacy program to similar shelters across the United States, as the need for such help grows.
“The people doing this work are extremely overburdened,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, a Harvard University researcher whose report on unaccompanied children has been presented to a congressional committee studying the issue. “They are usually scrambling off their feet because there is no proper funding.”
Mrs. Woltjen said the advocate program is being expanded to Houston, where there is a need for legal services.
The “real tragedy” is when an unaccompanied child without a lawyer who may have had a valid reason for staying in the country grows up to be an illegal-alien adult, she said.
“They may be here illegally, and five years later, Homeland Security decides to sweep Michigan and that child, who is now let’s say 23, he gets picked up and might have a family,” she said. “And now you have a family that gets split apart.”