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Accord on Detaining Young Illegal Aliens Said Near

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WASHINGTON--Officials of groups involved in immigrant-rights issues said last week that they were nearing agreement with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on substantial revisions in federal policies for dealing with children suspected of being illegal aliens.

Although a spokesman for the é.î.ó. would only describe the talks as positive and ongoing, representatives of groups involved in the discussions said they expected within weeks to reach an agreement with federal officials on policy changes intended to better insure the welfare of such children on matters such as access to education.

The U.S. Supreme Court was expected to air many of the same issues this week during oral arguments in a case focusing on the constitutional rights of children the I.N.S. detains.

The case before the Court, Barr v. Flores (Case No. 91-905), centers on whether the I.N.S. can keep in detention minors whom no parent, other close relative, or legal guardian has stepped forward to claim.

Meanwhile, representatives from the Child Welfare League of America, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, the National Council of La Raza, the U.S. Catholic Conference, and other groups have been holding talks with I.N.S. officials in an attempt to revise the agency's policies outside of court.

Emma D. Navajas, the director of the Catholic Conference's office for immigrant and refugee services, said the discussions have moved slowly but that "great strides'' have been made.

Charles Kamasaki, the vice president for research, advocacy, and legislation for La Raza, an umbrella organization of Hispanic groups, added: "I think the é.î.ó. knows that it does not know a lot about child welfare and does not know a lot about education. I think it wants to resolve the issue in ways that are beneficial to children.''

The I.N.S. issued a memorandum last December intended to ease the release of minors from immigration-service custody. But child-welfare groups have continued to voice objections to the government's policies, arguing, for example, that the child-care facilities some illegal aliens are sent to are themselves a form of detention.

These and other issues involving young undocumented immigrants often confront public school officials, who are responsible for educating children regardless of their citizenship status.

Minors Detained Indefinitely

The case before the High Court this week was filed on behalf of several students in I.N.S. detention in 1985.

A brief submitted to the Court on behalf of the immigration service maintains that the agency is acting constitutionally and in the best interest of such children by keeping them in custody until they can be released to a responsible adult.

The brief notes that the é.î.ó. in 1990 alone took 8,542 juveniles into custody pending deportation hearings, and that 73 percent of the juveniles detained in the agency's southern region that year were unaccompanied by an adult. It argues that the agency is doing its best to address "a difficult and frequent problem.''

But lawyers representing the children in the case, from the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and other advocacy groups, contend that the I.N.S. exceeded its authority and violated the children's rights by keeping them in detention for indefinite periods.

A brief filed on behalf of the children accuses the é.î.ó. of exposing minors to unnecessary strip searches, mixing them in with adult detainees, and providing them with access to "few or no educational services or reading materials'' while in custody.

Incidents at Schools

For school officials in the Southwest and other regions most affected by illegal immigration, federal authorities' efforts to enforce immigration laws have sometimes been a source of friction.

Paul J. Strelzin, the principal of Bowie High School in El Paso, recently told the El Paso Times and Herald Post of an incident in which agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, a branch of the I.N.S., allegedly held a gun against the head of a football coach there who was taking players to a game because the agents suspected him of being an illegal alien.

Mr. Strelzin, whose campus abuts the U.S.-Mexican border, also accused Border Patrol agents of following a school secretary home without cause, harassing students, and endangering students by driving across the campus while in pursuit of suspected illegal immigrants.

"I believe they have a job to do,'' Mr. Strelzin said in an interview last week. "All I am asking is that they stop harassing my students.''

Mr. Strelzin confirmed the newspapers' reports of his complaints, but he declined to discuss them because, he said, he was in the process of holding discussions with a Border Patrol official and Rep. Ronald D. Coleman, D-Tex., to resolve the issue.

Doug T. Mosier, a spokesman for the El Paso office of the Border Patrol, said last week that his agency was investigating the alleged incident with the coach, as well as others.

"We categorically do not harass students. We don't make a practice of it, nor do we condone it,'' he said.

Mr. Mosier added, however, "If we observe an illegal alien crossing on the school ground, we will go in and question them to determine their citizenship status.''

Last spring, officials of the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona accused Border Patrol agents of arresting and intimidating students there.

Superintendent Victor Herbert and Border Patrol officials in Tucson subsequently signed a memorandum of understanding that provides for detained children to be given prompt access to telephones while the district helps federal agents reach their parents or guardians.

Last month, federal officials reportedly detained suspected illegal aliens in the parking lot of the administrative building of Murphy Elementary School District No. 21 in Phoenix, within sight of a school.

Superintendent Robert I. Donofrio issued a memo to parents assuring them that the district would keep é.î.ó. officers off campuses. An advocacy group called the Arizona Immigration Steering Committee said it was seeking clarification of I.N.S. policies on enforcement near schools.

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