At first, it appeared to be a straightforward but intriguing news item: Four teenagers from Tanzania had vanished from an international gathering of Boy Scouts in Virginia, setting off an intense search by federal and local officials. The adolescents were soon discovered 80 miles to the north in Washington, D.C. and, along with other reporters, I wondered whether their wanderlust was an adolescent prank or a serious attempt to flee the impoverished yet stable African nation. The story had the potential of breaking some of the news doldrums of the summer of 2001.

…reporters gave voice to neglected people who, in some cases, were afraid to speak about how they were being treated.It became less of a quirky story, however, as soon as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) quickly moved the teens to a secure detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, even though they had valid tourist visas. There, they were prevented from speaking with their parents or lawyers for several days. Even though foster homes were available, the INS insisted on keeping them detained and whisked the scouts to another secure facility in Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from their attorneys, who had hoped to get them placed with a Richmond foster family.

Reporting on Unaccompanied Minors

The actions by the INS inspired a deeper look at what happens to unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in this country. As journalists dug farther into INS procedures, we found striking inconsistencies in the government’s handling of the case: If these four scouts had valid tourist visas, was it legal for the INS to detain them? And if the teens had a legitimate fear of going home, as their lawyers claimed, why was the INS trying to deport them so quickly and without a hearing to determine if they had a valid case?

The case of the four Tanzanian Boy Scouts was just one of several wellpublicized examples of how INS procedures, which would later come under scrutiny from Congress in light of the September 11 attacks, were not only riddled with inconsistencies but in some cases violated federal regulations.

Another African teenager, mentally retarded, unable to speak English, and abandoned by his mother in France, arrived alone at Dulles Airport from Europe. Stopped with a fake passport, Malik Jarno, under questioning, admitted that he was a minor fleeing political persecution in Guinea. But despite a birth certificate that showed that he was 17 years old, INS officials still did not believe him and placed him in an adult immigration facility where he claimed he was subjected to beatings from not only adult inmates but also guards.

When, with the help of an interpreter, I spoke with him by phone—after days of wrangling with the INS for permission—he couldn’t understand why no one would listen to his story. He had no access to a lawyer, an advocate, or even someone who could speak his language, for nearly nine months. Eventually the INS conceded that he was a minor and transferred him to a youth facility in Pennsylvania. But this happened only after intensive media coverage of his case. And while he still had to convince a judge about his asylum claim and remained fearful about his future, he was relieved that he was finally heard: “I can’t believe that someone really wants to listen to me,” he told me.

About 5,000 unaccompanied children are detained by the immigration agency each year. A third are secured in juvenile jails with American teens who have committed felonies, a practice that is against the law in most circumstances. Several years ago a national study found that 80 percent of these unaccompanied minors were not given attorneys, which is also a violation of federal standards. In some cases, children were returned to their countries without their claims being heard by an immigration judge.

Such circumstances presented an opportunity for me and other journalists to give voice to an invisible group of youths, who sometimes would be in fatal jeopardy if they returned to their own countries. Yet in trying to learn about their lives and tell their stories, we were confronted with hurdle after hurdle, and this prompted us to push harder to keep government accountable. With each successive story, I sought more access and looked for more evidence about the propriety of the federal government’s policies and procedures. INS information on conditions of specific children was often lacking and incomplete. The agency also made it difficult to interview the Boy Scouts, claiming that reporters needed written permission from each teenager’s parents before they could be interviewed. (Permission is required, but can be granted either by parents or the director of a detention center. In this case, it never was.)

Children Are Wary of Journalists

Children in detention are also often not trustful of reporters, so establishing trust was a delicate undertaking. Often the minors had fled dangerous circumstances and oppression only to be traumatized further in this country. The jails that many were kept in were not the safe haven that they had imagined, so they became suspicious of everyone, including reporters.

In other cases they were afraid of retribution. Juan Carlos, a 17-year-old Salvadoran who fled his country last year, was one of those. When I first interviewed him after he was released from a juvenile jail in Arizona, he was still hesitant to divulge even his last name, where he was from, and some of the specific details of his life. He was scared that after speaking with a reporter he would be discovered by forces that had driven him from his country. Any talk of having his picture taken was immediately dismissed. Like many of the children I interviewed, he was placed in a detention center filled with American criminals and was held without access to an attorney for months.

Carlos was hesitant to discuss those details until we’d had many conversations, which happened after he was released and awaiting his asylum hearings. That I was able to have this series of conversations allowed him eventually to open up and talk honestly about his experience. We first started with a phone interview, and then we had two successive face to face meetings in which he grew progressively more comfortable with me. It was this human contact that gave us the ability to get to the heart of his story.

Despite the difficulty in gaining access to the youths—and in some cases in getting them to open up—the resulting stories complimented congressional lawmakers’ efforts at addressing the issue of INS treatment of minors. During special senate hearings and private interviews with congressional members, children not only told of hardships in their home countries but also about their INS isolation here in the United States. By February 2002, enough momentum had been gained on Capitol Hill that reforms were made in INS policies and procedures regarding undocumented minors.

Reader feedback about such stories lets journalists know that their relentless digging through what seemed at first—in the case of the Tanzanian Boy Scouts—to be a straightforward news story constituted a public service. By doing what journalists are trained to do—asking good questions of public officials, finding examples of where a public institution is broken, and remaining skeptical until all the evidence is gathered—reporters gave voice to neglected people who, in some cases, were afraid to speak about how they were being treated.

Chris L. Jenkins is a metro staff writer for The Washington Post.

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