From: The Cutting Edge
By: Susan Ferriss
September 5th 2011
In December 2010, Washington attorney Jennifer Podkul received a call from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office, asking to speak with one of her clients. The client was a minor, 17, when Podkul, a legal aid group attorney, happened to meet him during a routine visit to a Virginia juvenile jail. The boy had been sent to the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, which has an immigration wing, after U.S. Border Patrol agents caught him, unaccompanied by any family members, crossing into Texas from Mexico for the third time.
The first time the boy had crossed into the United States was in 2009, he was 16, with a backpack of marijuana a gang told him to carry. He told Podkul he had asked agents then if he could stay and offered to give them information about smuggling routes.
Instead, the boy told the lawyer, the agents had their own proposal: They told him to go back to Mexico and get more information, including names of smugglers. The request was a direct violation of the intent of 2008 federal legislation designed to help stop abuse of minors by human traffickers, Podkul told iWatch News.
Now it appeared that the IG’s office wanted the boy to cooperate in their own investigation of how the agents had treated him.
“They wanted to show him photos of the agents,” Podkul said, “and to talk to him.” The boy, she said, had been “terrified of the Border Patrol,” but he had also been terrified of not making his delivery of drugs for the gang that an uncle had allegedly forced him to enter into at 14.
Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks, who is based in Marfa, Texas, said he wasn’t aware of the inquiry into Border Patrol agents in Texas that Podkul described. He added that he couldn’t comment on pending legislation affecting the Border Patrol.
“Our agents are trained, and they’re going to be on the side of the juvenile during the process,” he said. “If we find signs of trafficking, we turn the case over right away to investigators at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
But the inquiry by Homeland Security’s inspector general serves to illuminate other, broader concerns about having Board Patrol agents undertake the sensitive interviews, or screenings, that Congress has mandated of unaccompanied minors, specifically Mexicans, who cross illegally into the United States.
Congress added the provision for screening youths from Mexico and Canada to the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act in 2008 as a way to identify minors who may be under the control of drug or sex traffickers or who may face other threats if sent home. But its effectiveness has been questionable and child-welfare advocates say better screening and more reforms are needed to dissuade minors from repeat crossings, and prevent them from becoming prey of violent criminal gangs on the border.
Border agents are supposed to ask unaccompanied minors if they fear being returned to their country, tell them that they have a right to an immigration hearing to try to stay in the United States, and inform them of their right to go to a shelter for minors. Reading the minors their “rights” is supposed to occur before the minors are offered a consent form to go back to their home countries voluntarily.
Two recent reports examining the treatment of unaccompanied minors, including Mexicans, caught at the border – and two bills introduced during the summer – question agents’ effectiveness at conducting these sensitive screenings and how well the minors are being treated overall.
One of the bills (H.R. 2235), introduced June 16 by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, (D-Calif.), calls for licensed social workers to assist Border Patrol agents in the mandatory interviews of minors caught crossing the border to clarify their individual circumstances.
Senate bill 1301 (which would reauthorize existing anti-human trafficking laws) was introduced June 29 by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). It also calls for a Government Accountability Office study of Border Patrol agents’ effectiveness in carrying out the screening of vulnerable minors.
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