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Unaccompanied migrant children spend weeks in government custody, even when their U.S.-based parents are eager to claim them

Juan is held by his mother Andrea after he was released from government custody in Phoenix on April 12. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)
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During the 10 days that Andrea’s 6-year-old son, Juan, was held in government custody after crossing the southwest border with his grandmother, the Venezuelan mother who lives in California said she called government officials several times a day, trying to arrange his release.

While officials seemed in no rush to recognize Andrea as Juan’s mother, those caring for him continued to call her so that she could parent him over the phone. First it was someone at Border Patrol at 4 a.m. on a Saturday as Juan was separated from his grandmother and refused to get on a bus. The next day, it was a social worker who could not get the distraught child to eat. Then a foster mother called when Juan would not go to sleep one night.

“How can they do this to a child?” said Andrea, 37, who goes by her middle name and did not want her last name used because she did not want to jeopardize her asylum case. “He’s never been separated from his family.”

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Like most migrant children who cross the border without their parents, Juan seemed destined to spend weeks in the government’s care, as his case slowly worked its way through a bureaucratic system that has been overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of migrant children and teenagers arriving without their parents. The delay takes a deep emotional toll on them. And it exacts a steep financial cost, too: The government estimates it spends $775 per day to shelter and care for a migrant child at an emergency shelter.

Andrea eventually enlisted the help of immigrant rights advocates and traveled last week from her home in California to Arizona, where Juan was being held. Flanked by members of the media, she and an advocate demanded that her son be released — and, under pressure, he was.

The U.S. government has never had so many migrant teens and children in its care, with more than 20,000 held in Health and Human Services shelters and another 2,200 in border facilities waiting for shelter beds to open up.

More than 40 percent of the minors released by the government have at least one parent already living in the United States, but HHS has been taking 25 days on average to approve release and grant custody to the mother or father, a number that dipped to 22 days Thursday, according to the latest internal data reviewed by The Washington Post. It takes an average of 33 days to release minors to other immediate relatives, such as siblings.

Federal officials say they are scrambling to speed up reunifications, streamlining requirements and even offering to pay for parents’ transportation costs. But lawyers, lawmakers and White House officials are urging them to act faster, saying the prolonged detentions are traumatizing children and putting them at risk of catching the coronavirus.

For the past several weeks, the Biden administration has been chiefly focused on reducing the number of children held in cramped Customs and Border Protection tents and jails. Officials have rushed to open emergency shelters to temporarily house them at convention centers, military bases and converted oil worker camps. This effort costs at least $60 million per week, according to an analysis of government estimates, and is expected to continue for months.

Biden administration spending $60 million per week to shelter unaccompanied minors

The government’s effort to stand up shelters instead of more quickly placing children with their parents and relatives has accelerated concerns among advocates and lawyers.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers warned the Biden administration in a letter last week that the fast-expanding emergency shelters should be used sparingly because they “are not state-licensed, not appropriate for prolonged operation, and in the past have been plagued by violations and abuses.” They urged officials to “facilitate the quick and safe release of children” to their parents, vetted relatives or other sponsors.

HHS has acknowledged in court records that it has been straining to add case workers. The vetting process often does not begin for days and after children such as Juan are out of Border Patrol custody, which in his case took about a week. Some shelters are struggling to hire and retain staff, plagued by high turnover, low morale and fear of contracting covid-19.

The staff shortage at the shelters has been so acute that HHS is asking federal workers — including those at NASA, the Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency — to deploy to border areas for several months, working 12-hour shifts supervising minors and performing case management duties, such as interviews with parents and other potential sponsors, according to internal emails obtained by The Washington Post. More than 350 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees are also helping conduct interviews, most remotely.

A minor taken into CBP custody after crossing into the United States without a parent or legal guardian is classified as an “unaccompanied” child, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires HHS to assume custody of the child and make a safety determination before release to a vetted relative or sponsor. HHS can reject a parent or other sponsor if the agency determines the adult poses a risk to the child or is not capable of providing for the child’s well-being.

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HHS said it has expedited the process, but advocates say it remains onerous. Parents must fill out a “family reunification application,” sit for an interview, and listen to a case worker read a penalties-of-perjury statement and the contents of a “Sponsor Care Agreement,” according to a copy of the new policy.

Case workers also interview the child separately to ensure they haven’t been trafficked or abused, verify their relationship through birth records, and conduct background checks. Case managers make release recommendations to an HHS field specialist, who issues the final decision.

Roughly 90 percent of minors are eventually released to a relative, with more than 40 percent being claimed by a parent, according to HHS.

HHS has attempted to fast-track the release of minors to parents in cases where there are no concerns about potential abuse or neglect by waiving fingerprint requirements. While parents or other legal guardians undergo criminal background checks, HHS has temporarily suspended those checks for other adults living in the household.

Some advocates say the process should move more quickly, and that parents should be able to take custody of their children without filling out an application. They could undergo background checks and show identification and birth records, which the advocates say a consulate could authenticate.

Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who runs a nonprofit, Every Last One, that reunites migrant families, and who helped Andrea reunite with her son, compared the delayed reunifications to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in 2018, which separated thousands of migrant parents and children. Her organization has urged officials to reunify the families within 24 to 48 hours.

“Children who are separated from families experience ongoing trauma until they are reunified,” Cohen said. “We’re seeing parents grieving and terrified for children who they are unable to contact for weeks on end.”

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Robert Carey — the former director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the shelters — countered that vetting is crucial to avoid placing children into dangerous situations. The agency relaxed its standards during a major influx in 2014 and then placed some unaccompanied minors with traffickers who forced them to work on an egg farm in Ohio, where they were held in roach-infested trailers, threatened with harm, and forced to work nearly 12-hour shifts cleaning cages or debeaking hens for as little as $2 a day. The episode led to a Senate investigation.

“The overarching priority has to be the care and safety and security of children,” said Carey, who ran the agency from 2015 to 2017.

Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law in California, said that the vetting process is wrongly grounded in the presumption that a child is safer in government custody than with a parent or relative.

“All sponsors, including parents, have had to prove their suitability, often in onerous and inefficient ways,” Desai said. She said parents should be presumed to be fit “unless proven otherwise” and that children should be released to their parents within a few days, not a few weeks.

Advocates for these migrants say that parents often go weeks without hearing from their children and can struggle to locate them.

Lorena, a Guatemalan mother living in Atlanta, recalls getting a 4:25 a.m. call from her teenage daughters on March 12, a day after they’d crossed into the United States. The girls had borrowed a hidden cellphone from another teen being held in a packed Border Patrol tent in Texas.

“We’re here,” said Nancy, 16, crying. “When can you come get us?”

That was more than a month ago. The girls were transferred to a makeshift shelter at a San Diego convention center, where the younger daughter — Britney, 15 — became sick with covid-19.

“I just want them to give me my daughters,” said Lorena, who wanted her last name withheld because she came to the United States illegally.

The reason many Guatemalans are coming to the border? A profound hunger crisis.

Lorena left her daughters with her mother in their rural village outside the city of Huehuetenango more than a decade ago, soon after splitting up with their father.

She earns $14 an hour in a carpet factory in Atlanta, and lives with her 4-year-old U.S.-born son, a brother her daughters have never met. When the eldest began showing symptoms of acute anxiety and a sense of abandonment, Lorena decided the time had come for them to join her in Atlanta.

In November, she paid a smuggler $5,000 to bring the two girls to the Mexican border where they could surrender to U.S. agents. The Trump administration used an emergency health order to deny the girls’ release into the United States and flew them back to Guatemala.

Lorena paid smugglers $5,000 again in February. The Biden administration has pledged to no longer return minors to their home countries, so the girls were allowed in. Lorena said she is filling out all the paperwork, but she’s scared to travel to San Diego because her Guatemalan passport is her only legal identification.

“There are a lot of cases that are processed quickly, so I don’t know why it’s taking so long,” she said. “Why won’t they let them go?”

Andrea grew frustrated trying to do the same to get her son released. She said she fled Venezuela in January after receiving death threats, then arranged for the rest of her family to join her in California: Her mother, husband, teenage son and Juan.

Her husband and teenage son were quickly released after crossing the southwest border in Arizona. But CBP detained Juan and his grandmother for eight days, then split them up, sending the little boy to a shelter in Phoenix. Andrea traveled there and tried to advocate for his release. CBP declined to comment on her case, citing privacy concerns. HHS did not respond to questions about Juan’s case.

“I said, ‘Please, give me my son,’ ” she said. “They wouldn’t do it.”

During a second trip to Arizona, Andrea watched as her advocate spent several hours negotiating Juan’s release — which happened April 12. ICE released his grandmother the next day. The family celebrated with cupcakes.

Since then, Andrea said, her son will not leave her side, afraid that he will be separated from her once again.