Last week, I joined a group of thirty volunteer lawyers and interpreters to visit a New York children’s shelter for immigrant youth. The shelter houses unaccompanied minors, young migrants who entered the United States without a parent or legal guardian. Facilitated by Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, our visit was part of their monitoring of the 1997 Flores Settlement, which sets national standards for the detention and release of minors.
As an interpreter, I interviewed three teenagers who had made the journey from Central America to the Southern U.S. border. These are teens who fled violence in their home countries in search of a safer life in the United States. Their intention was to join family members who already live in the country. But as unaccompanied minors, they were apprehended by ICE and transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They were then brought to the New York shelter, not to be closer to family but simply because the shelter had available bed space.
At first glance, the wide lawns and rows of crimson trees surrounding the shelter resembled an idyllic boarding school—a drastic departure from the images of treacherous Texas tent shelters. One fundamental flaw, however, remains constant: these children have been in shelters, isolated from family, for too long.
In recent months, the number of unaccompanied minors in ORR shelters and their length of stay has increased dramatically. In 2015, the average length of stay was 34 days. As of September 2018, the average number days a child migrant spends in an ORR shelter nationally has grown to 59 days. Accounts from across the nation point to children remaining held in shelters for up to an astonishing 598 days. One young migrant at the shelter told me that he had been there for eight months. Later, I learned that other youth had lived in the shelter for up to two years.
I was shocked to learn that each of the teenagers I met had available and appropriate family sponsors in the United States, yet they had been held in the shelter for months. Recent ORR policy requires that all adults who step forward to take care of a migrant child must submit fingerprints to ICE. This has prevented many potential sponsors from claiming children because they fear deportation or other immigration consequences. In the cases of the three unaccompanied minors I met, this requirement is irrelevant. Each has a sponsor with legal immigration status, therefore calling into question the effectiveness of ORR’s process and responsibility to unite unaccompanied minors with family.
The continued separation from family is especially troubling due to the harm extended stays in shelter conditions causes to children. Ample research confirms that children living in group settings are less likely to succeed than those placed in family-like settings. They face poorer educational outcomes, are more susceptible to abuse and maltreatment, and are at higher risk of interaction with the criminal justice system.
Furthermore, the Flores Settlement Agreement mandates ORR to place each minor in its custody “in the least restrictive setting appropriate.” The Flores Settlement Agreement is the principle enforcement mechanism available to defend and protect the rights of unaccompanied minors detained in the United States. The federal government is now attempting to replace the settlement agreement with a proposed regulation. While weakening the enforcement of standards for the detention of children, the new regulation would increase the number of unaccompanied minors in secure ICE detention centers. As stated in public comments submitted by Children’s Rights, the proposed rule would ultimately cause “tremendous harm to children and families trying to escape violence and hardship whose only crime is to believe that they will have an opportunity for a better life” in the United States.
My experience in the children’s shelter proved to me that instead of reduced oversight, unaccompanied minors need increased monitoring of both the facilities that house them and the processes intended to unite them with family. In our work, we see children lingering in child welfare systems due to the lack of available homes. These unaccompanied minors have a home. They have a family to care for and love them. It is unequivocally unjust and unacceptable to deny any child that opportunity to grow and succeed.
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