Families split up by the system

EVERETT — Elsa Torres huddled with her three youngest children on a bench in Snoho­mish County Juvenile Court.

She was worried, and with good reason.

A Honduran national without permanent legal residency in the United States, her whole way of life and the future of her five children in this country were in jeopardy. The trouble arrived after her two oldest kids were arrested in September, allegedly breaking into a car.

A judge that day in early November refused to free her 15-year-old son from Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett. Federal immigration authorities already had whisked her 17-year-old daughter to a detention center in California, a way point on the route to possible deportation.

The collision of crime and immigration issues created a quandary for the Torres family and for Snohomish County judges.

Federal immigration officials want juvenile courts to report contact with people who may be in the country illegally. That puts judges in the position of taking sides in the national debate over immigration enforcement. It’s not a place where all in the juvenile court are comfortable, particularly when that part of the legal system emphasizes reuniting most young offenders with their families.

Torres now is in hiding, hoping she can attain legal residency status for herself and her children.

Her teenagers who were arrested are not U.S. citizens, but their three younger siblings are.

The county’s Superior Court judges have asked prosecutors for a legal opinion on the court’s responsibilities, and what level of cooperation they must or should extend to immigration officials, Presiding Judge Thomas Wynne said.

The judges want guidance on when juvenile officials should tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement about young criminal suspects who may not be U.S. citizens. Some juvenile court officials wonder whether notifying immigration authorities is the best thing for the child’s welfare.

The state’s courts treat juvenile offenders differently than adults. Punishment is part of juvenile court, but there also is an emphasis on reunification with the family and rehabilitation. The idea is to get young wrongdoers on the right track.

Wynne hopes to have the opinion from prosecutors by mid-December, the next time the judges meet as a group. The court now has no policy on cooperation with immigration officials, but might adopt one, Wynne said.

“The issue was raised, and we’re looking into it,” Wynne said.

Torres isn’t alone in her predicament, and neither are the judges who decide policies at Denney, where juvenile criminal cases are handled.

In Portland, Ore., Multnomah County officials who run its juvenile detention facility also are developing a policy for dealing with such cases.

“We are striving to give our staff some consistency in guidelines about decisions of what information is shared and when,” said Robb Freda-Cowie, a spokesman for the juvenile detention center in Portland.

In the case of the Torres teens, the children refused at first to identify themselves or give authorities contact information for their mother. Detention officials asked the immigration agency for help in identifying them, said Craig Daly, Denney detention and probation supervisor.

The federal agents were happy to help.

In May, immigration officials sent a letter to Denney, asking for notification whenever “foreign born” youngsters are booked into the detention center. Agents also delivered a list of phone numbers for detention personnel to call.

Immigration agents have approached jails and detention centers around the country seeking cooperation identifying people who may not be U.S. citizens. It’s called the Criminal Alien Program, said Lorie Dankers, an immigration spokeswoman in Seattle.

“If you look at it from a public safety standpoint, what it does is prevent people who are convicted of crimes from going back out into the general population,” Dankers said. “And these are, in many cases, people who shouldn’t be in the country to begin with.”

If a child is deported, the agency tries to determine who in the country of origin could be a guardian or caretaker, Dankers said. Some children are accompanied by a family member when deported.

She said she could not talk specifically about the Torres family or what might happen with them because of privacy regulations surrounding immigration cases.

Torres and her children got a good idea what’s in store for them when they showed up for another court hearing later this month.

Immigration agents also arrived, apparently intending to detain the entire family, said Karen Halverson, an Everett attorney who represented the 15-year-old boy in the car prowling case.

When the agents drove into the parking lot, Torres and the family drove away. She has since moved and doesn’t want to reveal where she’s living now, she said in a telephone interview. She said she’s looking for an immigration lawyer to help her.

“I think that’s horrible,” Halverson said. “The kids are here because (Torres) brought them here. There are three kids who are citizens. It’s terrible.”

Immigrant rights advocates view the pursuit of juvenile offenders as a “huge problem,” said Diana Moller, staff attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle.

“It does result in separating families,” Moller said. “It’s definitely an increasing problem.”

In Washington, D.C., lawyer Chris Nugent works full time on immigration issues and legislation.

He said some 8,000 children a year are deported. Most of them are caught at the border or airports. Some come out of juvenile jails, such as Denney.

Many of the illegal immigrants don’t have close relatives in the United States and are considered “unaccompanied” children, Nugent said.

“You’re seeing local authorities referring children to (Immigration),” Nugent said. “It’s a growing concern for folks both working in the juvenile justice field as well as with these unaccompanied children. It should not be happening.”

The government is “creating horrible prospects of family separation and very uncertain fates,” Nugent said. “You’re not going to make these children succeed by deporting them to their country of origin.”

Torres, 36, is a single mother who works as a welder. She said she has been in this country almost 17 years and has been a good citizen. She hasn’t started the process toward legal residency for herself and her two older children partly because of the cost, including hiring an immigration lawyer, she said.

“I love my children, and I work hard for my children, not me,” Torres said through an interpreter. “I want them to go to school and make something of themselves in this country.”

She added: “I want to stay in this country. This is my country.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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