By Bob Smietana
Although the federal government will end its policy of separating immigrant families at the border, it’s unclear what will happen to more than 2,000 children who are already separated from their families.
Federal officials don’t have a plan yet, said Adam Estle, a Nazarene church elder and field and constituencies director for the National Immigration Forum.
After they were separated, children and their parents were sent to different facilities and often lost track of each other. Some of the children are already in foster care, said Estle.
Getting in touch with their parents isn’t easy. And reuniting kids with their parents could mean locking them up with their parents, said Estle.
“Reunification will be really complicated,” he said.
That’s in part because there was little record keeping about kids taken into custody and little information given to parents, according to The Washington Post.
A lawyer working with immigrant families described the scene in one courtroom this way:
I can’t understand this, the judge said. If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?
A Texas legal organization working with more than 300 parents told the Post, it has only been able to find two of their children.
According to National Public Radio, 2,342 children have been separated from their parents under the so-called “zero tolerance” policy since May.
Those children are then treated as “unaccompanied minors”—and within three days have to be placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
The children often start out in a shelter. The ORR has at least three shelters for “tender age” children, which includes toddlers.
Unaccompanied minors eventually will be placed in the “least restrictive environment,” according to the ORR.
The best option is for them to be reunited with their parents, said Estle. Otherwise, if possible, a relative or family friend can take care of them.
If unaccompanied minors have no family or other connections in the United States, they can remain in a shelter or be placed in foster care.
The number of unaccompanied minors in federal care has grown since 2014, when thousands of children showed up at the border, fleeing violence in Central America.
Sheltering unaccompanied minors has become a billion-dollar industry, reports The New York Times.
Some minors are in shelters scattered around the country, where they can stay for a few months.
According to the ORR:
The impact on the local community is minimal. Shelters are operated by nonprofit organizations. About half of our shelters care for fewer than 50 unaccompanied alien children. These shelters are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located.
ORR pays for and provides all services for the children while they are in care at a shelter. This includes providing food, clothing, education, medical screening, and any needed medical care to the children. Children spend fewer than 57 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community. They remain under staff supervision at all times.
A few unaccompanied minors ended up in foster care programs, said Estle.
Estle ran a “tender age” program in Phoenix for young unaccompanied minors in 2014. The job of the program was to help find children’s families—or to find them foster parents.
When the program found a family connection or another sponsor, the child went into that person’s care. Otherwise, the program found a foster family for the child.
Estle and his family served as foster parents for a young boy for 18 months. He’s now in the long-term care of another family in the U.S. His immigration status is still up in the air.
Other kids were eventually deported.
Churches who want to help families affected by the current crisis can support a nonprofit like Bethany Christian Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, or Catholic Charities—who run foster parent programs for unaccompanied minors.
According to the ORR, those programs are looking to find more foster parents. That’s another way church members can help, said Estle.
And churches can also help groups like Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) or World Relief, who offer legal aid to immigrants.
It may take years for the courts to sort out what happens to unaccompanied minors, said Estle. Some may be allowed to stay in the United States. If they don’t have family, those children will likely remain in the care of a foster family or sponsor.
Few—if any—will end up being adopted by U.S. families.
In order to be adopted, either the child’s parents or the government of the country they came from would have to give consent. That’s unlikely to happen, says Estle.
“A lot of times they’ll just end up staying with the same family for the long term,” he said.
Unaccompanied minors aren’t the only children in need of help from churches. Children who are U.S. citizens can be left behind with no one to care for them if their parents are deported.
“That’s the other family separation crisis,” he said.
For at least one Christian group, running a foster care program for unaccompanied minors has led to controversy.
Protesters have criticized a foster care program for immigrant and refugee kids run by Bethany Christian Services, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Bethany is currently caring for 81 children who were separated from their families at the border, according to Fox 17 in West Michigan. The agency has a government contract to care for those children, according to published reports.
Protesters held up signs reading “No profit for kidnappers” and “End the contract” outside Bethany’s office this week. Protesters have accused the agency of profiting off refugee and immigrant children and fear those kids will end up being adopted rather than returned to their families.
Bethany told a local television station that none of the immigrant children in its care has been placed for adoption.
“However, in the current situation of children being separated at the border, we would prefer these vulnerable children be placed temporarily in a safe and loving foster home instead of remaining in a center,” Bethany said in a statement released on Twitter Wednesday.
“Our goal remains to reunify these children with their biological families and we hope that, along with other organizations in the U.S., we can assist in making that happen.”
Bethany’s president Chris Paulsky said the children Bethany cares for have been traumatized.
“So when they get here, to say they are traumatized is an understatement,” he told WGVU in Michigan. “They have been through hell on earth. I can’t express it.”
Paulsky worried the change in government policy could mean kids in foster care may end up back in detention.
“There is a possibility that they would be reunited with their families, but there is a nuance there,” Paulsky told WGVU. “The nuance is that they would be in a detention center.”
- Trump Signs Immigration Executive Order, Some Christians Still Concerned
- Keep Immigrant Families Together, Say Evangelicals
- How Can You Help Families Separated at the Border?
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.