Anthropology professor Susan Terrio was honored with a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for her 2016 book, Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody. (photo: Alex Hu/Georgetown College).
Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody is Terrio’s exploration of the plight of undocumented minors who fall into the temporary custody of the U.S. government. The Choice Outstanding Academic Title honor is bestowed on less than 10 percent of each year’s roughly 7,000 entries, making it a major recognition for Terrio.
Terrio’s 280-page tome is the culmination of seven years of research and writing. After her experience studying juvenile courts in France and the undocumented unaccompanied minors in their hearings, she was inspired to examine the issue in the U.S. She visited detention facilities and conducted hundreds of interviews with both undocumented children and representatives of the system attempting to process them.
“We knew about the adult immigration detention system. … Nobody knew about this huge, shadowy system for juveniles,” she said.
In theory, the system works as follows: When undocumented children are apprehended by immigration or law enforcement officials, those without a parent or guardian are transferred to a program known as “custodial care,” under the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
Custodial care was envisioned as a humanitarian solution, created in response to a class-action lawsuit for young undocumented immigrants who suffered miserable conditions under the prior enforcement-run system. It provides a temporary living situation for these at-risk youth while attempting to find relatives to whom they can be released. But according to Terrio, the results often look more like prisons than shelters.
“These are closed facilities and very strictly monitored programs. The government decides where they will be placed, when they will be released and to whom they will be released,” she said. “And then sometimes these kids act out, because they don’t understand why they’ve been put under lock and key.”
The system still serves a humanitarian goal — it’s designed to keep children out of the hands of the drug dealers and sex traffickers who often entrap desperate border crossers — but Terrio believes the politically motivated push for more aggressive border security has clouded its mission and created a conflict of interest. The children, she asserts, are not being served.
“They’re diverted into this separate juvenile detention system that was created with a protective mandate … But simultaneously, they’re put into deportation proceedings in federal immigration courts, where they have no access to government-funded attorneys.”
While the majority of children in this program are caught by Customs and Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border, Terrio also tells the often-tragic stories of some who fall in another way. One child was a near-lifelong New York resident who discovered he was undocumented after being apprehended for hopping a subway turnstile. Police turned him over to ORR’s custodial care program. Now a ward of the state, he could face deportation.
“It was heartbreaking,” Terrio said. “He didn’t even speak Spanish. He was culturally American. He was asking ‘When did I become an immigrant?’”
“I saw the government on the one hand designating itself as legal guardian of these UACs (Unaccompanied Alien Children), while on the other hand they’re put into immigration court proceedings without government-funded legal representation,” she said. “They don’t speak the language. They don’t understand the legal system. They’re at a distinct disadvantage.”
The situation has further deteriorated since 2014, when Terrio’s book originally went to press, as the custodial care system was completely overrun with immigrant children fleeing the cartel- and gang-fueled conflicts that have plagued El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“When I first started researching, there were 6,000-8,000 kids channeled annually into the system,” Terrio said. “In 2014, it was over 61,000.”
This mass exodus from Central American countries has highlighted and exacerbated existing problems within the bureaucracy to dramatic effect. What began as a small program now detains thousands of children in de facto temporary prisons, failing to provide most with adequate legal representation and hastily releasing some without proper vetting: In one 2014 case, six children were approved for release to a human trafficker.
The question of who is responsible for these children — already difficult to resolve when their numbers are small — has become all but impossible.
“The system was completely swamped, and the safeguards sort of evaporated in 2014. It was never intended to take care of this large a number of kids,” Terrio said. “To me, [the human trafficker case] was emblematic of a system that was bursting at the seams.”
Unlike some exposés, Whose Child Am I? goes beyond critiquing the system to actually propose policy solutions. The keys, Terrio believes, are twofold: The government needs to treat the violence in Central America as a bona fide refugee crisis and fund resettlement services accordingly, then provide adequate legal representation to minors who are placed in removal proceedings in immigration court. And while President Barack Obama’s administration left many advocates wanting on this issue of undocumented immigrant rights, Terrio is concerned that a flawed but inherently humanitarian program might transform to a deportation-focused machine under President Donald Trump.
“They’re going after kids who don’t have family in this country — kids who are the most vulnerable, really,” Terrio said. “That signals that the new administration’s priority is to remove them as fast as they can.”
“At the end of the day, they’re kids, you know?” she said. “No, we can’t take care of all the problems of the world. But the factors pushing them here are so horrific that I feel policy has to shift, and at least provide some minimal protections.”
— Patrick Curran