Carolina Isabel Iraheta stands in the room she prepared for her two sons in an apartment she rented in Arlington, Va., as part of her effort to win their release from U.S. custody. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Carolina Isabel Iraheta spent eight weeks trying to get her sons released from a government-funded shelter for migrant children, most of that after she’d made clear she was their mother and wanted them with her in Northern Virginia.

The teenagers’ caseworker repeatedly asked for documents Iraheta had already provided, cited a large caseload as a reason for the delay and refused to speak with Iraheta’s attorneys about how to speed the process, said Iraheta, a native of El Salvador who arrived in the United States five years ago and is seeking asylum here.

The Trump administration, while conceding that some of the caseworker’s actions may not have complied with official policy, defends the vetting of Iraheta and others as an essential part of caring for tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who cross the nation’s southern border each year. The government has been beefing up its vetting procedures, concerned about human trafficking and the possibility that teens may have been involved in gang activity at home and could pose a public threat.

“It’s a matter of the safe release of the child to a sponsor,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which funds and oversees shelter operators.

The increased scrutiny has boosted the lengths of shelter stays and the cost to taxpayers — hundreds of dollars per child per day, officials say. Several legal organizations representing migrant children who are suing the federal government say the process deprives the minors and their relatives of legal rights and can wrongly delay their reunifications.

“As they meet one obstacle, another just magically appears,” said Neha Desai, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “It’s this opaque process that only the government can be involved in, and there’s no oversight of it.”


Iraheta’s phone shows a photograph of her son Diego Hernandez, 15. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Iraheta’s son Saul Hernandez, 17. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A document from Comprehensive Health Services, which runs the Homestead, Fla., shelter for unaccompanied minors. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Iraheta spent eight weeks working to get her sons released from U.S. custody. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Iraheta’s weeks-long effort to claim the boys illustrates an aspect of the government’s shelter program that hasn’t received wide public attention: It’s usually not a judge who controls whether an immigrant child in federal custody will be reunited with family members. And unlike in a typical custody case in U.S. courts, there are no hearings or rules of evidence.

Instead, a caseworker employed by the shelter — in Iraheta’s case, a for-profit contractor — has broad authority over the process, and an HHS official has final say.

Eight weeks in custody

When unaccompanied minors from Mexico are stopped at the border, authorities often return them to Mexico. But children from other countries — mostly Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — are turned over to HHS.

In 2011, the department received 6,600 unaccompanied children, who on average spent 72 days in custody before being released to a parent or other sponsor, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report.

In 2014, the number of children spiked to more than 57,000, as more minors fled poverty, gang violence and other threats.

To manage the influx, HHS streamlined its vetting, allowing photocopies rather than original birth certificates, for instance, and not requiring fingerprint background checks for parents without criminal histories. The average time minors spent in custody fell to 34 days.

But that year, authorities discovered that HHS had released eight Guatemalan boys to human traffickers who forced them to work on an egg farm. The department received heavy criticism that was highlighted as recently as August, during a Senate subcommittee hearing.

“In response to that, we have increased the review of the kids, the review of the sponsors, and that has definitely added time,” Weber said.

Migrant children spent an average of 41 days in HHS custody last year, officials said. So far this year, with the government struggling to reunite hundreds of children separated from their parents as part of President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, the average stay is 59 days.


U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July about the release of unaccompanied minors held in U.S. custody. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There are more than 12,000 minors in shelters, including about 500 separated children. The vast majority, like Iraheta’s sons, crossed on their own, in most cases hoping to join relatives or other sponsors already in the United States.

The department requires every adult in an applying parent’s household to submit fingerprints, which under an agreement made in April are then shared with the Department of Homeland Security. The agreement has been widely criticized by advocates of immigrants, who say those without legal status may be reluctant to provide fingerprints, prolonging the amount of time minors are held.

HHS also has come under pressure as Trump repeatedly warns of the dangers he says are posed by MS-13 gang members — a small fraction of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. Caseworkers must vet children for ties to gangs to ensure that releasing them will not create a public threat.

The lawsuit brought by several groups on behalf of unaccompanied minors says the process provides “little or no procedural protection against prolonged detention.” It alleges that the government in many cases is not making “prompt and continuous efforts” toward family reunification, as required by a 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement.

A long journey

Iraheta fled her native El Salvador years ago to live in Mexico, where she was beaten by members of her husband’s family during a dispute, according to local news reports of their 2012 arrests. She is allowed to live and work in the United States while her immigration case crawls through the system.

Her sons, Diego and Saul Hernandez, crossed the border to join her this spring and were picked up by border agents, turned over to HHS and brought to a 1,350-bed temporary shelter in Homestead, Fla.

Such facilities cost the government about $750 per child per day, Weber said, three times the price of permanent shelters that HHS funds, usually through grants to nonprofit organizations.

The Homestead shelter, run by Comprehensive Health Services (CHS), made headlines in June when Democratic lawmakers attempted an unannounced visit but were turned away. Journalists permitted to tour the facility later described soccer fields, dorm-style buildings and large air-conditioned tents where minors attend classes and watch movies.


Immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on June 20 in Homestead, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The boys’ caseworker, Monica Vega, who is employed by CHS, declined Iraheta’s requests to come visit them, saying that rules didn’t allow it, Iraheta said. Vega also declined to speak with Thomas Woodward, a lawyer at the firm representing Iraheta, or respond to his repeated emails, Woodward said.

Woodward said the caseworker communicated various requirements to Iraheta that he considered unreasonable. “But they’re only telling them to Carolina over the phone,” he said. “So there’s no paper trail.”

Iraheta said Vega — who did not respond to a request for comment for this article — questioned her living arrangements, suggesting the room in an apartment she shared with another family wasn’t big enough to accommodate her sons. When her roommates declined to give their fingerprints, Iraheta rented her own apartment in Arlington, depleting her meager savings and stretching the income she earns working in a restaurant.

Week after week, Iraheta and Woodward would send documents to Vega in the belief her sons were about to be released, only to have Vega call Iraheta again and ask for more documents.

CHS referred questions about the case to HHS.

In an email in July, Iraheta begged the caseworker to turn over Saul, 17, and Diego, 15.

“I’m strong, but the truth is I’m falling apart listening to my boys crying out to be released,” Iraheta wrote in Spanish.

The caseworker asked Iraheta for patience.

“I talked with them, and they’re calmer now,” Vega wrote. “They are very good boys, and they understand the amount of work I have.”


Iraheta is reunited with her sons Saul, 17, right, and Diego, 15, at Dulles International Airport. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
'Safe and timely release'

Weber said the department and CHS reviewed Vega’s handling of the case in response to inquiries from The Washington Post and found that “it is not representative of the work done across our network of 100 shelters.”

CHS subsequently took “an appropriate action,” Weber said, and sent a memo reminding all caseworkers that they should speak with sponsors’ lawyers during the reunification process. “We always want to ensure we are being diligent and accurately articulating information that they will need to assist the parent with the safe and timely release of the child,” the memo said.

Weber said HHS officials known as “federal field specialists” have authority over whether children are released, after recommendations from caseworkers and “nongovernmental third-party reviewers.” Another HHS spokesman, Kenneth Wolfe, said earlier that caseworkers exercise considerable discretion in determining whether the care and housing offered by a parent is adequate.

“We do ask potential sponsors about the sleeping arrangements for the family members,” Wolfe said. “In other words, how many bedrooms? How many family members per bedroom? The age of the people sleeping in the room, if there are windows or not.”

Caseworkers also ask about things such as whether smoke detectors are in order. “It may or may not be a dealbreaker, but it certainly would be a red flag,” Wolfe said.


Iraheta looks at her older son, Saul, after they were reunited at Dulles International Airport. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Iraheta hugs her younger son, Diego. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

In July, after Iraheta’s vetting was completed, her boys were flown to Dulles International Airport to reunite with her.

When she saw them coming from the terminal, she broke into a run. The three shared a long embrace.

“I thank God,” she told a Spanish-language television crew. “Because He’s the only one who has helped us end this ordeal.”