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A place to call home ... for now

FULLERTON, Calif. &

Life in a government-run shelter for illegal immigrant children might not sound very inviting, but for 16-year-old Sandra it's a vast improvement from what she left behind in Guatemala.

For starters, she has enough to eat and nobody beats her. She even gets to study, a luxury she hasn't had since leaving school in third grade.

She's been on her own since she was 10, when she fled an abusive home in Guatemala. She was picked up by U.S. immigration authorities two months ago while trying to enter the country illegally through the Arizona desert. She's among two dozen children at the shelter in Fullerton, about 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

"I feel more protected here than I've ever felt. It's like I'm a young girl again," said Sandra, whose last name could not be disclosed because she is a minor in government custody.

What happens when unaccompanied children are picked up varies by their country. Mexican children generally are sent straight back to their home country. Those not from Mexico are housed in shelters while the government decides whether to release them to family living in the United States, deport them or put them in foster care.

The shelters, meant to be a temporary refuge, resemble college dorms, where the children take English classes, receive medical care and play soccer at local parks.

"This is like a hotel," said Edwin, a 17-year-old Honduran detained while trying to cross the Arizona-Mexico border.

Before 2003, the children were often put in juvenile detention centers. They lived more like criminals than schoolchildren, and the conditions prompted lawsuits. Congress intervened and assigned the care of unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which revamped and expanded a sparingly used shelter system.

While day-to-day life is better, civil rights and legal groups criticize the system for not preparing children for the legal process awaiting them.

After being released, thousands don't show up to their immigration court hearings because of confusion about the process or fear they'll be deported. Many who don't show up would be eligible for U.S. residence because they were abandoned or abused in their homeland.

Sandra, who says her father beat her so often that she fled her home, could get a green card if she is able to convince a judge of the abuse and years on her own.

Civil rights groups say children like Sandra need legal help to navigate the immigration system.

"Most never apply for a legal status they are eligible for because nobody helps them," said Peter Schey, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles who specializes in minors.

A majority of the 7,800 immigrant minors who passed through government custody last year were teenagers from Central America, though countries of origin span from China to Iraq. Their reasons for coming vary, from seeking work or reuniting with family to fleeing violent street gangs.

On average, they spend between 45 and 60 days at a shelter in Arizona, California, Washington, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, New York or Florida.

Anti-illegal immigration groups say they are sensitive to the plight of children, but argue there are few situations that warrant allowing them to stay here. They are particularly unsympathetic to minors who come to be reunited with family members who themselves came here illegally.

If their parents "break the laws, and in doing so they broke up their families, it's their obligation to fix it," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Fear of deportation pushes some children to flee the shelters, even though by law they can't be sent home until after a hearing or agreeing to leave the country.

Lynda Scarlino, program director at the Fullerton shelter, said children close to 18 are particularly jumpy because they know as an adult they can be immediately deported.

Elsa, a 17-year-old Guatemalan who is eight months pregnant, is worried she'll be sent home. Her parents still are in Guatemala; she came to work and support them. She hopes she'll be released to a brother living in Phoenix before she turns 18.

Children can be released to adult relatives, regardless of their immigration status, if case managers at the shelters deem them capable providers.

No matter what, Elsa said, she can't attempt to do anything before she has the baby, who if born in the United States will be an American citizen. But the baby's status doesn't remove the possibility that Elsa could be deported.

"It's better for me to wait," she Elsa. "If I leave here and they catch me again it will be worse."