Specialised Care Required: Migrant Youths in US Custody | Voice of America

WASHINGTON – Oberlina is originally from Honduras and lives in the US state of Ohio. In 2018 she traveled with a caravan with a migrant background to the border between the USA and Mexico, where she applied for asylum. Last week, the mother of two received a call from federal authorities.

Her children, ages 6 and 11, had crossed the border into the United States unaccompanied.

“Immigration officers called me and said the kids were fine. The next day they called me again. And they told me the children were very sad. I spoke to them with tears and so much fear. I gathered all my strength to tell them not to lose hope, ”Oberlina told VOA.

Oberlina’s children are among the thousands of unaccompanied minors who crossed America’s southern border this year, which has become an early and delicate challenge for President Joe Biden. Critics and some government allies describe the situation as a crisis.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly criticized Biden’s easing of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, saying the new administration nearly invited an influx of migrants. At a press conference Thursday, Biden denied the charges, noting a seasonal increase in border arrivals.

“It happens every single year – the number of people who come to the border in the winter months of January, February and March increases significantly,” Biden said.

In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said there were 11,551 minors in HHS custody and 4,962 in border guards as of March 23.

According to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 29,792 unaccompanied children were found on the US side of the Mexican border from October to February. Almost 3,000 were younger than 12 and more than 26,000 were between 13 and 17 years old.

On Wednesday, Biden called in Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the government’s response to the influx of unaccompanied immigrant youth, the only category of asylum seekers currently allowed in the United States.

As Washington works to address the border situation, Oberlina said she is focused on reuniting with her children and hoping they will be released for them in about a week.

Exemption for minors

For most of 2020, the former Trump administration blocked asylum seekers of all ages under Title 42, an emergency measure taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Biden government maintained the policy but released minors. Today, the federal authorities strive to accommodate hundreds of young people with a migrant background at the border every day, to adhere to strict rules that regulate where and how they are cared for, and to adhere to pandemic protocols.

“The border patrol can’t handle all children,” said Dylan Corbett, founding director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas.

Unaccompanied minors such as Oberlina’s children receive special protection and special treatment resulting from a decision by the Federal Supreme Court in 1997 that limited the length of detention of children in adult detention centers.

“In the 1990s there was a lawsuit known as Flores filed on behalf of children who were held in regular immigration detention with adults and other children and languished there for long months,” said immigration attorney Becky Wolozin of Legal Aid Justice Center. “And this case was brought on their behalf because it is fundamentally inappropriate to have children in a prison.”

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As with anyone who crosses the US-Mexico border without a permit, minors are first taken to a border protection post. However, within 72 hours they must be placed in the care of the Refugee Resettlement Office of the Ministry of Health and Human Services and placed in facilities tailored to the needs of children.

The Biden government has made efforts to expand youth housing facilities and has considered US military bases, convention centers, and hotel complexes as emergency locations. However, currently US officials admit they are failing to meet the 72-hour transfer window for a significant number of minors.

“HHS can’t process the kids fast enough. More and more children are spending time in border guards and they should only be there for 72 hours. The reason for this is 72 hours because the border protection agency is not equipped to deal with children, ”said Corbett.

Care services

In addition to government-run facilities, some unaccompanied minors are enrolled in care programs pending delivery to relatives in the United States.

Tawnya Brown is the executive director of Bethany Christian Services, one of many nonprofits that work with the US government to provide temporary care.

“They [migrant children] Just go through multiple hands at the limit. You are being arrested. They go through all of these circumstances until they can get somewhere – where hopefully there’s a little bed [at a] Shelter or temporary care, ”said Brown.

Hundreds of American foster families have taken in migrant children on short notice. Among them are Kim and Jason, a couple in Pennsylvania. VOA withholds her last name to protect the teenagers she sponsors.

“I can’t imagine the weight of the world on my shoulders as a kid when I travel across borders to a place I don’t know and I don’t speak the language and everything else,” said Jason.

The last six minors the couple took in were between 15 and 17 years old.

“I’ve learned to fire myself when they first come in and give them a seat,” Kim said. “I only do it bit by bit because I realized that the only time they can process, remember and handle so much is when they walk in.”

Jose Luis, 16, reunited with his parents at the airport.  After 13 years of separation from his parents, he traveled as an unaccompanied minor through the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas.

Jose Luis, 16, reunited with his parents at the airport. After 13 years of separation from his parents, he traveled as an unaccompanied minor through the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas. (Celia Mendoza / VOA)

First hand experience

16-year-old Jose Luis took a plane, then a bus, and finally crossed the US-Mexico border. Like other unaccompanied minors, he made the trip without parents to guide or protect him.

Although most of the unaccompanied children arriving at the border are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, Jose Luis is from Ecuador. At the end of January he crossed the border alone. With that father’s permission, VOA spoke to him about his reunification trip in the United States with parents he hadn’t seen since he was three.

“There are a lot of children, older children and adults in immigration detention. There’s a little bit of everyone trying to get into the US, ”he said.

After his release from US custody, Jose Luis was met by his parents at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on March 3, an event with balloons, gifts, hugs and tears.

“Meeting my mom and dad was the best thing that happened to me today,” he told VOA. “It’s the best feeling of happiness that we can only feel with our parents. Because they are the ones who gave you life. They are the ones who will help you move forward no matter what. “

Celia Mendoza contributed to this report.

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