Immigration: Migrant kids have been in US custody for weeks. Now the Biden administration has to reunite them with households
In more than 80% of cases, children crossing the US-Mexico border alone have a family member in the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. But bringing them to these relatives is a timely and often arduous process.
Officials have been grappling with the situation along the US-Mexico border and its implications since the inception of the government as more and more migrants, especially children, arrived. The administration was quickly criticized on both sides of the aisle for its handling of the border. Republicans picked up on Biden’s immigration policies, arguing they encouraged migrants to travel north, while immigrant officials criticized officials for continuing to rely on Trump-era policies that allow for the rapid evacuation of single adults and families who attempt to illegally cross the US southern border.
On Thursday, the Minister of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee what measures were being taken to combat the influx of minors on the US-Mexico border. Currently, border arrests appear to have flattened out, but the hurdles remain. Federal documents received from CNN show a shortage of case managers needed for the number of children being cared for at six temporary facilities, including the San Diego location, as well as the ongoing need to continue building bed capacity for children.
For the children, the reunification process can be dizzying. Her family lawyer said Meybelin’s case has reached out to various case managers, pushed back her release and raised concerns with her family and her lawyer who say she has suffered trauma following an attack in El Salvador.
“What’s frustrating about this case is that there’s a natural brother here, a lawyer who knows what they’re doing. But we’re running around. You can expect that when you call Amazon about a lost package, but this is is a child, “said Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, a Texas-based immigration attorney, referring to Meybelin’s older brother.
Meybelin’s parents, Jose and Mirna, spent about three weeks fretting over the whereabouts of their 17-year-old daughter, who fled her home country of El Salvador to travel to the United States after she was attacked and her family threatened . CNN only uses their first names for privacy reasons.
“It hurt,” Jose told CNN in Spanish as he cried. “My daughter is young. I don’t know if we’ll see her again.”
Jose said he called the Office of Refugee Resettlement hotline 24/7 to try to find her daughter after she crossed the US-Mexico border. “We called every day. They said we could call 24 hours,” he said.
Since Meybelin was moved to the San Diego Convention Center, they’ve been able to connect almost weekly, but only for about 10 minutes at a time.
The average time it takes to reunite a child with a godparent is around 30 days, although officials are trying to cut the time. The DHS is participating in an interagency task force focused on matching children with their sponsors to see what support they can provide, a senior Homeland Security official told CNN.
Sponsors such as parents, relatives, or legal guardians must submit documentation and undergo a review. Meanwhile, case managers collect the details of a child and help them reunite with a sponsor in the United States. However, in some cases, young children may arrive with little or no information to help identify them.
“”[The reunification process] is extremely complicated and there were other children we met who had no information about their families. In these cases, case managers must act as detectives, “said Lindsay Toczylowski, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney who works primarily with children who live at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Just this week, a baby found along with four other young girls on the Texas-Mexico border had a phone number with a marker on her diaper.
Once the children are back with their godparents, they still have to go through their immigration procedures, which can take months if not years. Many seek asylum in the United States. Ultimately, however, it is up to an immigration judge to decide whether a child will stay in the United States or be deported to their home country.
Escape from dangers in Latin America
Dangerous conditions in Latin America are among the factors contributing to migration to the United States. The region was also hit by two devastating hurricanes last year and continues to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic as Covid-19 cases and deaths have risen sharply and once expected growth rates have been decimated.
In April, US Customs and Border Protection arrested 17,171 unaccompanied children on the US-Mexico border, after March, but still higher than in previous years. This is based on the latest available data from the Agency. RELATED: Border crossings hit 2-decade highs in April, although the number of unaccompanied children is falling
Juana Cuyuch Brito’s 16-year-old sister crossed the US-Mexico border in early March after fleeing Guatemala after last year’s hurricanes wreaked havoc. Her sister Lidia had been in custody by the border police for at least a week until she was taken to HHS custody when they could finally make a phone call, Cuyuch said. Her sister now resides at an HHS Pennsylvania shelter and is still waiting to be released.
One of the biggest challenges in reuniting children with their sponsor is the strained case management services given the sheer number of children being taken into custody. The result: children stay longer in emergency shelters.
Lincoln-Goldfinch is a co-founder of the nonprofit Vecina, a family reunification project launched in partnership with Project Lifeline to help parents and relatives get paperwork going in hopes of shortening the time to reunite . “What these families have decided is safer than the alternative, and the waiting, lack of information, lack of communication and delays in release are absolutely painful for these families and these children,” she said.
Neha Desai, director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Rights, echoed these concerns: “Our team has spoken to numerous sponsors over the past few months and they have been overwhelmingly scared, confused and frustrated. Some of the sponsors had waited weeks to hear from a case manager and haven’t received a single call yet. Others had received an initial call but had no explanation of the steps in the process, clear expectations of the schedule, or reasons for the delays, “she said.
Nathan Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services, who works directly with unaccompanied children, highlighted the role of case managers and the stress they are under. “In Bethany’s programs, which are licensed by every state we’re in, our case managers have a license-set number of cases. The setup is designed to keep them from getting overwhelmed. But they’re definitely stressed,” added Bult.
More than 350 employees from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of DHS, help with case management. The administration, officials told reporters last week, is improving some case management processes and updating guidelines to quickly reunite children with their screened sponsors. This includes implementing virtual case management, training additional case managers and accelerating the release of children to parents or guardians.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency under HHS, says it has also started the process of identifying parents or relatives living in the U.S. while children are in CBP detention.
In the past few days, HHS has released more than 500 children almost every day, according to the government, indicating progress as the number of children in the department’s care declines.
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