Critics say the juveniles, mostly held on relatively minor crimes, are not returned to their families without prior confirmation of their relations' legal status. Instead, they are held, sometimes months at a time, and eventually turned over to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for deportation.
Probation officers can fairly contend that they are caught between mutually exclusive federal and local imperatives. And the situation has been exacerbated by the rise of drug-running operations that exploit Mexican teen-agers, placing a swollen number of such youths in the system. But the department itself acknowledges a real risk of selective custody.
"Since I've been down here, my observation is if you're a Hispanic youth, you'll be questioned on status," says Janet Forsythe, who last October was named head attorney for the Juvenile Division Unit of the Probation Department. "Over the course of time there are many kids from other countries: China, Africa, Samoa, Philippines, Vietnam, Canada. I have never heard complaints from their families regarding inquiries into alienage status. I find that very interesting."
Probation officers find the situation interesting, too. "It sure seems like Hispanic kids are targeted," says Probation Officer Carlos Gonzalez. "Some [officers] are more law-and-order types, strictly adhering to federal guidelines, but I'm not at liberty to say more."
At a cost of $150 per day for every child held at the Youth Guidance Center, the practice is expensive and a flagrant violation of state child welfare codes, the local sanctuary policy of noncooperation with the INS, and the policies of the Juvenile Probation Commission.
"I am troubled by this perception of probation officers," say Eleazar Aramburo, a private attorney and a member of the Juvenile Probation Commission. "If they are disclosing information to the INS, it is a violation of the confidentiality of the minor."
On Aug. 13, in response to the concern of youth advocacy groups, the Juvenile Probation Department approved a policy forbidding probation officers from making recommendations based on the immigration status of a child or his family.
Explaining the origins of the policy, Charles Breyer, president of the Juvenile Probation Commission, admits there were problems with "our probation officers. The consequence was that undocumented children were being detained while kids without status problems were given over to their families. This contributed to overcrowding and denied the placement of children with people who can give care."
Whether the change in policy has led to a change in action is an open question, however.
One week later, on Aug. 20, Marie Ramirez, 26, was denied custody of her brother Rafael, 16, charged with possession of cocaine, apparently because of her undocumented status.
"The [probation] officer led me to believe that he couldn't release Rafael into the custody of a relative who was undocumented," says Ramirez, who asked that their real names not be revealed. "He said he had to release him to a blood relative, and if we were undocumented he would have to deport Rafael to Mexico."
Rafael was eventually released to his sister after Dimone Hale of the Juvenile Probation Commission intervened.
"There is no requirement for the Probation Department to act as a police force," Hale says. "We never have to ask questions about status."
But resistance persists. On a copy of the new policy that was circulated through the Probation Department the week of Aug. 26, for instance, one probation officer wrote in the margins, "Minor's legality must be considered in order to conform to federal immigration law." Another note read, "Can any other law on policy regarding undocumented supersede federal law?"
"Right now there is a policy that no such questions should take place," says one official close to the Probation Department, "but if I was your daughter, and you were undocumented, I would not be released to you. No matter how many years in this country, the fact that you're undocumented would prevent that. It's really gotten out of hand."
The continued questionable treatment of such (mostly Hispanic) youth by the department has put the City Attorney's Office on the hot seat.
"Documented status is not supposed to be a question that plays any role in releasing a minor to their parent," says Susan Frankel, deputy city attorney for the Juvenile Probation Commission. However, she refused to respond to further questions on the matter, explaining that "you're basically asking me if my client [the Juvenile Probation Department] is breaking the law, and I can't answer that."
But lawyers representing Hispanic children are not so discreet.
"They are deporting kids, period," says Marla Zamora, a public defender with the Juvenile Division Unit of the Probation Department. "The Sanctuary Ordinance prevents them from doing this, but they're behaving like the ordinance is over."
Recently, Zamora represented "Alfredo," an undocumented Mexican 16-year-old.
Alfredo was charged with possession of cocaine last January. His probation officer, 20-year Probation Department veteran Charles Rand, refused to release him to his aunt with whom he was sent to live by his mother, because she was undocumented. The fact that she was married to a legal resident and had three children did not sway Rand.
In a March 22 letter to the Mexican Consulate, Rand dismissed Alfredo's aunt as an undocumented relative, recommending instead that the youth be deported to Mexico or an INS Border Patrol station.
The Mexican Consulate was unable to locate Alfredo's mother and encouraged Rand on March 27 to consider "the possibility of placing the minor with his relative in the United States."
Instead, Rand, in an April 2 memo to Supervising Probation Officer Amee L. Exnicios, proposed that "the previous recommendation be modified to strike placement of the minor with his mother and replace the same with a referral of the minor to the INS."
Rand added that "his placement locally would be a drain on monies sorely lacking for legal county residents." Furthermore, he said "the minor is not an appropriate candidate for local placement on probation in that he is illegally in this state and therefore not providable with services contracted solely for legal county residents."
Eventually, Alberto himself requested to be returned to Mexico, depressed, Zamora says, from his five-month confinement at the Youth Guidance Center.
"You had a kid who couldn't speak English locked up when he could have been home with his aunt," Zamora says. "It's disgusting."
Probation Supervisor Exnicios admitted that the INS is contacted in some cases.
"If we can't find a legal family member here we contact the Mexican Consulate, and if they can't find the family in Mexico we contact INS for assistance," she explains. "After we notify INS, the next day a determination is made and the kid is moved out."
Immigrant-rights attorneys now wonder if documented families are turned away as well.
"How do you know if someone's documented?" asks Dan Macallair, a lawyer with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "If a family member comes in with a Spanish accent but no papers, what then? Hold the kid?"
There are those, however, who say probation officers are being unfairly targeted. They complain that the officers are pawns in federal and local policy disputes.
"We are caught between federal immigration policy and the city's policy to ignore it," says one member of the department requesting anonymity. "Probation officers do ask about legal status and are required to ask. No other way to judge the suitability of the home if he didn't ask. You can't place a kid in a home that doesn't legally exist."
Youth advocates say Hispanic youth are the real victims. Migrant children, they charge, are trapped by the politics of the Probation Department on the one hand and the recruitment strategies of drug traffickers on the other.
According to one social worker within the department, these children are lured from the impoverished rural areas of Central America by adults promising them jobs in the United States. Upon reaching Mexico, they are told they need to raise money to continue traveling and are introduced to drug dealing. After serving this "apprenticeship," they arrive in the States to hone their skills even further.
"Racism in the department does play a part," says the social worker, "but these kids have been trained. They are told to say they are juveniles, and they'll get out. They have mystery aunts they want to be released to. I worked with one kid twice under two different names. I said, 'Wait a minute, I know you.' "
But many social workers and immigration attorneys argue that there are existing safeguards that prevent a child from being placed with an inappropriate adult. Families have to present valid identification or sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that they are willing to take responsibility for the care and control of the child. Community organizations are also called in to assist in obtaining information necessary for the release of the minor.
"What is the justification of sending a child to another country when their parents are here?" asks Commissioner Aramburo. "There is no justification to separate families. I hope no child was deported with family here."
There are those within the department, however, who remain beholden to the perceived dictates of the federal government.
"Immigration requires that undocumented youth are not to remain and should be deported," says Exnicios. "The loyalty oath of office we take is to uphold the United States Constitution and all the laws of the land, so help me God.