Shortly after President Donald Trump’s administration first announced in May it would be separating immigrant children from their parents, White House chief of staff John Kelly gave an interview in which he tried to disabuse the public of the notion that the policy was “inhumane” and “heartless.”
“The children will be taken care of — put into foster care, or whatever,” Kelly told NPR. “But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
On Wednesday, facing an American public that had quickly turned apoplectic as images and audio of the separated children being held in detention centers surfaced, Trump announced plans to sign an executive order to end the so-called “zero-tolerance” policy. The policy had already sanctioned the government’s separation of an estimated 2,342 children from their parents.
It turns out that Kelly was correct on both counts: the separation policy was not in effect for very long, and hundreds of migrant children still remain in the foster care system. Now, many children separated from their parents have been transported across the country, and it may become a bureaucratic nightmare to reunite families.
Citing an unnamed federal source, the New York Daily News reported on Wednesday that, as of Monday, there were 1,321 unaccompanied minors in New York State’s lower 14 counties. Of those, 311 were immigrant children who had been rendered unaccompanied as a direct result of Trump’s family separation policy.
In an emailed statement to Mic, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman called that number “indefensible.”
“The trauma that these children are being subjected to by the Trump administration is enormous,” Lieberman said. “Separating kids from parents and whisking them off to jails thousands of miles away is cruel, inhumane and can do lasting harm to children’s development and well-being.”
Even before the announcement of the “zero tolerance” policy, Chicago was teeming with displaced immigrant children. In March, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Congolese mother whose young daughter was shipped to Chicago for four months while her asylum case was adjudicated in San Diego — 2,000 miles away.
Although the mother and daughter were promptly reunited after the lawsuit was filed (the ACLU has since expanded into a national class-action suit), Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney who argued the case, told reporters during an ACLU briefing on Tuesday that the government needs to have a clear and efficient process for promptly reuniting the families that it separates.
“This isn’t a situation where there are some bureaucratic snafus and they get the kid back in one to two weeks — the little Congolese girl was in Chicago for four months, and there was no process to get her back,” he said. “The reunification process is not there, that’s why we’re suing.”
Under the zero-tolerance policy, families who arrive at the border with children are processed together at Customs and Border Protection detention facilities, and then separated. Parents are transported to federal detention centers, while children are transferred into shelters under the jurisdiction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which are distinctly prison-like — complete with caged-in, chain link enclosures and strict “no hugging” policies. Their toys, one of the few items they have in their possession, are reportedly confiscated.
After an indeterminate amount of time inside the youth shelters — “fewer than 57 days on average,” according to the ORR website — the children are either reunited with their parents or, in roughly 10 percent of cases, placed into the foster care system.
Across the U.S., the government offers contracts to nonprofits that specialize in placing children with foster families. Those organization, which include Catholic charities like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Family Services or Bethany Christian Services, help ORR “provide technical assistance in the reclassification process” and “determine appropriate placements for children among their national networks of affiliated agencies,” according to the agency’s website.
Emily Butera, senior policy adviser for migrant rights and justice for the Women’s Refugee Commission, said in an interview that it’s not atypical for a family or an individual who’s in immigration custody to have trouble locating and communicating with their family members,
“[There is] no clear and consistent process that the federal government has to help individuals in immigration custody find each other, communicate with each other and reunite with each other,” Butera said. “It’s a massive gap.”
She described a bureaucratic hellscape awaiting the immigrant parents who attempt to track down their children after they are finally prosecuted and released from an ICE detention center.
“The child can be held anywhere in the country, the parents can be held anywhere in the country,” she said. “There’s one number for ICE and one number for ORR, and those numbers are being slammed with phone calls right now by people who are desperate to find each other.”
Wait times on these calls are extremely long, she said, and there’s nowhere to leave a callback number. Those who get through to agencies like ORR could be told their child is being held in Michigan, she said.
“That’s the only information you’re going to get,” Butera said. “That caseworker, your child’s caseworker, then needs to start looking for you, and the only way they can do that is to try to find your deportation officer first — and hope that that deportation officer has both the time and the inclination to work with the ORR case manager to see if you can have a phone call with your child. That’s just for a phone call.”