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While most girls her age are practicing with school sports teams or studying for the SATs, Kenia Miranda is lobbying government agencies in San Mateo County for improved immigrant rights.
Though just 16 years old, Miranda is already an experienced activist. For the last year-and-a-half, she has been working with Youth United for Community Action, a youth-led organization in East Palo Alto that advocates on social- and environmental-justice issues.
This isn’t a typical high school extracurricular activity, but the weekly meetings with other teenagers have allowed Miranda to confront problems in her community—and her own life.
“I was an immigrant myself,” Miranda explained.
Her family came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9, an experience that challenged and motivated her as she grew up. Miranda said other students used to make fun of her accent, and, as a child, she often accompanied her mother to clean houses.
Now, “I want to help others who are going through my same situation,” she said. “I want to see them succeed as well.”
Most prominently, that has involved taking on a controversial practice in San Mateo County’s Probation Department: reporting undocumented youth to federal immigration authorities.
Though not mandated by law, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, has for more than a decade been encouraging cooperation from state and local agencies in detaining immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. The collaboration has helped push deportations to record levels in recent years—up three percent to more than 400,000 in 2012.
For minors who are reported, it means being placed in an “ICE hold” while in juvenile hall, giving federal authorities 48 hours to retrieve them. From there, they are taken to detention facilities and put into deportation proceedings.
Not all detainees are ultimately deported; exemptions are often granted that allow youth to be reunified with their families. But critics argue that, at best, the months-long process is incredibly disruptive to the lives of young people.
“It’s not rehabilitating the youth; it’s actually making it worse,” Miranda said. “We know of a couple of cases that youth have come back from the facilities they were in, and they come back not wanting to go out, scared, not willing to participate” in the community.
Opponents of the juvenile ICE referrals also worry that the practice is vulnerable to error and racial profiling.
“Mistakes can be made,” said Helen Beasley, an attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. “A lot of these youth don’t understand their own immigration status.”
In recent years, this legal and ethical dilemma has been at the center of heated national debates over how far to extend protections and amnesties for undocumented minors. Santa Clara County ended its collaboration with ICE in 2011, adopting a new policy of not reporting any immigrants to the agency that Supervisor George Shirakawa called the “most progressive” in the nation.
But directly to the north, the juvenile ICE referrals continue.
“There might to be a reason to it, but I don’t really understand why,” Miranda said.
The current policy has evolved over the past several years. According to San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, the probation department was initially under the mistaken impression that ICE’s request is mandatory, and it was reporting every undocumented minor arrested in the county.
A coalition of organizations, including Youth United, brought the issue to the attention of county officials in late 2011, after a Stanford Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic study revealed that San Mateo County had the second-highest number of juvenile ICE referrals in California.
Pine said he was “shocked and dismayed” by the findings. Activists were “justified in calling out the probation department,” he added.
The San Mateo County Probation Department did not return numerous phone calls or e-mails requesting comment.
The study led to a series of meetings with the community and new guidelines for ICE referrals implemented last March, under which youth are reported only if, by the officer’s judgment, they present a “danger to the public safety” or it “serves the best interest of the minor.”
Since then, three minors have been referred to ICE, a number that Pine said is in line with “the spirit of the policy.” He estimated that the county had previously been reporting more than 100 youth per year.
“ICE referrals should be very limited,” Pine said. “We’re uncomfortable having a no-exception policy.”
That doesn’t satisfy Youth United, which has kept pushing to eliminate the juvenile ICE referrals altogether.
“It’s too much on a youth” to face deportation proceedings, Miranda said. “That shouldn’t be the priority.”
As part of their continued campaign, Youth United created a video last summer called “Get Arrested, Get Deported,” profiling young people and their families who have been affected by the practice. They sent it to county officials and have since used it in know-your-rights presentations for immigrants in East Palo Alto.
In August, Miranda and two other Youth United members also joined the San Mateo County Youth Commission, an advisory committee to the Board of Supervisors, in an attempt to broaden support for eliminating juvenile ICE referrals altogether.
One of Miranda’s fellow commissioners is Gurjeet Chahal, 16. He also volunteers with Youth United because he wants to raise the profile of local immigrants who are not from Latin America.
As the son of two immigrants—his father is from Fiji and his mother is from India—Chahal said he has many relatives and friends living locally who are undocumented. One of his cousins was deported twice before finally getting immigration papers, a formidable experience for Chahal.
“It’s pointless,” he said of the juvenile ICE referrals. “It just hurts the youth and hurts the community.”
Chahal emphasized that being reported to ICE is like a second punishment for juveniles who have already faced criminal justice in juvenile hall. Though he’s raised these concerns with the Youth Commission, he said, the response has been mixed.
Youth United now hopes to convince the county’s next Chief Probation Officer to reconsider the policy once again. (Former chief Stuart Forrest retired in December amidst investigation for possession of child pornography.)
It’s a goal they may finally achieve. Their efforts have already had “significant effect on county policy,” according to Pine, in part because Youth United’s teen advocates have been able to speak from experience about an issue affecting their peer group.
But for Miranda, the fight will continue regardless. Her time with Youth United has directed her future plans in a new direction, from dentistry or nursing to social justice work.
“A lot of times we’re not aware of things that happen around us,” she said. “For me, it’s an eye-opener.”
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