Reuniting the Children: Where We Stand Now

By Sandy Santana, Executive Director, Children's Rights

As the father of three, I can’t help but think about my own children when I read the haunting stories of children separated from their families. Like one nine-year-old boy sent alone on a bus from Texas to New York City – he didn’t know where he was going, who he would meet and whether he would ever see his parents again. I imagined my ten-year-old son on that bus, how terrified he would be.

As Children’s Rights works to protect kids from this administration’s egregious immigration policies, this blog will help give you a better sense of the legal and regulatory maze surrounding the child separation crisis, what steps Children’s Rights is taking, and what you can do to help.

What We Know

Last week, President Trump announced that the federal government would end its family separation policy, but in truth he has merely traded separating children from their parents for the indefinite incarceration of families. The “zero tolerance” policy remains in place: people entering illegally at the border – even if they are claiming asylum — are still being prosecuted for what is a misdemeanor offense under the law. The executive order directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to keep families in its custody until both the criminal case against parents and the immigration case against families are completed – which means people are going to be in detention for a very long time, perhaps years. The order includes a loophole that says families will be kept together “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources” – giving the government all the wiggle room it needs to separate children should they choose to.

The executive order also authorizes the Department of Defense to use available space and construct new facilities – including converted warehouses and tents — to house immigrant families on military bases. This is because facilities were already at 95% of capacity even before the separation policy took effect. The Department of Defense has agreed to house up to 20,000 migrants on military bases.

For its part, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has asked the courts to modify the Flores agreement of 1997, under which there has been a decades-long presumption in favor of releasing kids, preferably to parents, and doing so “without unnecessary delay.” If children are kept in custody, they must be held in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to [their] age and special needs.” Flores originally applied just to minors who had come across the border unaccompanied, but the courts later ruled that it also applied to minors coming in with their parents and that 20 days was the limit for holding children in detention.

The executive order says nothing about reunifying those children who have already been taken. At first we heard that “no effort would be made” to find them, but later DOJ said they were waiting for guidance from the White House. Over the weekend, DHS announced a plan to reunite immigrant families and claimed to know the location of all children separated from their parents. But the announcement included no timeline or details regarding how reunification would be accomplished.

According to DHS, as of June 20th there were 2,053 separated children in its care, but there is justifiable skepticism about the actual numbers. If, as it claims, the government has already reunited 500 families, there is a sense that the numbers of children separated may be much higher.

In the meantime, what will happen to the kids?

Some of these children are too young to talk, and may not even know what countries they are from or what their parents’ names are. Most don’t speak English and some speak indigenous languages that are not widely used in this country. Reunification will be difficult, especially for those kids sent thousands of miles away from the border and whose parents have already been deported.

Legally, these kids are being designated as “unaccompanied minors,” but it is not yet clear whether the administration will actually treat them as such. Unaccompanied minors may be placed with sponsors such as a relative or friend, but in this climate of fear those sponsors, often themselves undocumented, may be afraid to come forward.  When a suitable sponsor cannot be found, the other option is foster care, a process that can take weeks.

The federal government is not being transparent with data surrounding the separated children. The short-term foster care agencies where we do know children are being sent are not providing meaningful information either.

As we know from our work to reform the country’s broken foster care system, childhood separation causes toxic stress, which disrupts a child’s developing brain architecture. It can lead to life-long consequence including a high risk of psychiatric disorders, diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions. For younger children it can result in cognitive impairment such as difficulty controlling emotions and anxiety. A well-functioning foster care facility is able to provide trauma-informed care to the children they serve. We are getting no sense that any of these child immigrant facilities are addressing toxic stress, which must happen as soon as possible to avoid irreparable long-term damage. Time is of the essence. According to some experts, it may already be too late for some children.

What Children’s Rights is Doing

Children’s Rights is advocating in the courts and in the public arena. Read more about Children’s Rights’ work here.

What You Can Do

Public pressure is key. I hope you will join us in keeping the pressure on until not one child is left unaccounted for and every single one is reunited with their parents. For practical ways to get involved, visit our Family Separation Toolkit here.

Updated 6/25/2018