Goodwill Ambassador Jolie visits detained children in Arizona

News Stories, 29 April 2004

© UNHCR/J.A.Ghedini
A teenage boy in the Southwest Key Program shows Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie a quilt he has just finished. He will be reunited with his family in late April.

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 29 (UNHCR) UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has visited detained asylum seekers at three facilities in the Arizona desert as part of her continuing efforts to give a voice to the tens of thousands of asylum seekers detained in the United States. Thousands of asylum seekers are detained every year in the US, including over 5,000 children per year.

During her visit to Arizona on Sunday, the Goodwill Ambassador visited the Southwest Key Program, a facility for unaccompanied children in Phoenix; the Florence Service Processing Center, a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) holding and processing facility for over 300 adult men; and a private corrections facility contracted to provide DHS with beds for adult women.

The UN refugee agency has long advocated against the detention of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. As the US and other industrialised countries have policies utilising detention programmes, however, UNHCR has often played a vital role in monitoring and ameliorating conditions of those persons who are nonetheless detained, particularly children.

In March 2003, responsibility for the care and placement of unaccompanied children in the US was transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the US Department for Health and Human Services from the immigration authorities of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (former-INS, which has since been incorporated into the DHS). UNHCR welcomed the transfer of custody from an enforcement agency to one that focuses on child welfare and has decades of experience working with resettled refugees.

Jolie heard many heartbreaking stories during her visits to the three facilities, but she was particularly moved by the plight of unaccompanied children trying not only to survive the often harrowing situations that brought them to the US, but also trying to weave their way through an extremely complicated immigration system.

"Many of these children have survived tragedy, so being separated from their families can only add to their suffering," she said. "Access to legal representation and a guardian to help them through this difficult immigration process is absolutely essential to protect them and ensure that their best interests are met."

Jolie was pleased with the progress that ORR has made in improving the conditions for shelter of unaccompanied children in a very short time. She noted with appreciation the positive example set by the collaboration between ORR and facilities such as the Southwest Key Program.

At Southwest Key, she visited older boys and girls in bicycle repair and sewing workshops, as well as young children working on arts and crafts projects. One nine-year-old boy who was making a photo frame from brown construction paper showed the Goodwill Ambassador a photo of his father, who is living in the US and who he hopes to be reunited with soon.

Another 12-year-old girl gave Jolie a tour of her room and dormitory area, both of which were basic but made to feel very much like a proper home with hand-drawn decorations, drawings and toys adorning the beds and dressers. Later that day, Jolie met the girl's mother at the detention facility in Florence. The two had not seen each other since two months ago, when they were caught at the border and detained in separate facilities. The girl's mother sobbed upon hearing that Jolie had met her daughter that morning and was relieved to hear that she was healthy and being well looked after by caring staff in a friendly environment.

The Goodwill Ambassador became interested in asylum seekers in detention, especially children, when she witnessed court proceedings for detained asylum seekers in Arlington, Virginia in November 2001. Last year, she was instrumental in building awareness and support for the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2003 (S.1129), a Congressional bill co-sponsored by US Senators Diane Feinstein and Sam Brownback. In addition to raising tremendous public support for the bill, Senators Arlen Specter and Hilary Clinton agreed to co-sponsor the bill during private meetings with Jolie. The bill will ensure that detained unaccompanied children will be treated properly and humanely while in custody and assigned legal counsel and guardians to assist them with immigration proceedings.

Since the transfer, UNHCR has been working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide even greater protection, assistance and support for unaccompanied children. In particular, all unaccompanied children in detention should have a guardian ad litem ["guardian at law" The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of the child during the course of legal proceedings] and legal counsel to help ensure they are protected and cared for during their detention and legal immigration proceedings.

At the end of her visit to Arizona, Jolie was enthusiastic about the cooperation. "I am excited that UNHCR is working with ORR on this initiative," she said. "These children are true survivors. I am awed by their spirit and inspired by their resilience. I hope they can find ways to work together to provide them with the care and assistance they deserve."