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Listen: Unaccompanied children protest conditions at Northwest youth detention centers

Youths protest conditions at detention centers in Seattle for unaccompanied minors on April 18, 2021.
Lilly Ana Fowler
Youths protest conditions at detention centers in Seattle for unaccompanied minors on April 18, 2021.

For months, unaccompanied children from the southern border who have made their way to the Pacific Northwest have been protesting conditions at youth detention centers scattered around the region.  

Every day, about 400 unaccompanied children are apprehended at the U.S./Mexico border. Approximately 20,000 of them are currently under federal care.

Eventually, the youth make their way to different parts of the United States, including the Pacific Northwest, where they are required to stay at detention centers run by organizations such as YouthCare. YouthCare runs a program in Seattle for unaccompanied minors called Casa de los Amigos. The organization partners with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, to run the program.

The Selma R. Carson Home in Fife, a 20-bed center, also serves unaccompanied youths, ages 13 to 17.  The facility in Fife is run by Pioneer Human Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that currently holds an approximately $2.6 million contract with the federal government. There is at least one other nonprofit in the area that run programs for undocumented children: Kirkland’s Friends of Youth. 

Youth detention centers for unaccompanied minors have long had a mixed reputation. But many advocates say they’re better than the alternative, the “hieleras,” shelters near the border run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Life at other detention centers, however, is also challenging. There are reports of sexual abuse and violence

While the youth focus on shutting down the facilities themselves, other advocates are looking at the long-term picture. Even when children are released from one ofthe facilities and reunited with family, they still face an uphill battle. 

“They are still facing a deportation hearing. So the fact that they were placed with a family member does not mean that they are allowed to stay in the United States. It's only a temporary placement while their immigration case is pending,” Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said in a recent interview. 

He says part of the difficulty for these youth is that some are forced to navigate the immigration court system largely on their own, often with limited or no English skills. 

Overall, there are more than 4,000 children who have deportation cases pending at the immigration court in Seattle who don’t have access to an attorney, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.

And these cases often take years to resolve. Baron says while they wait for their cases to be heard, some children might age out of certain protections, such as Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which offers a path for a green card for unaccompanied children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused. 

“I think there's this whole narrative about the fact that, you know, people are violating the law when they're actually trying to seek the protections that we have provided,”Barón said.  

Last month, a group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. She helps determine funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The senators asked her to approve no less than $300 million for legal services for unaccompanied children.

Children with representation are much more likely to be allowed to remain in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, the immigrant youths here say they won’t stay silent.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to