They arrive in the middle of the night, dazed, some sobbing, some listless. Many of them are small—in stature and age—and don’t have the capacity to understand that the flat grassy plains they just landed on are part of the same country as the metal enclosures where they were held.
They also don’t know that they are hundreds, maybe even over a thousand, miles from their parents.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border; the order, however, still allows for the detention of migrant parents and children for an indefinite period, albeit together now.
But what happens to the thousands of children who have been detained in shelters all across the country thus far? For nearly all of them, the separation continues, and the next step from detention is moving to a facility that offers foster care services.
Bethany Christian Services in Michigan is one of the approximately 100 (and counting) locations detained migrant children are being transferred to.
Ironically, the state claims President Gerald Ford as its hero.
Indeed, the airport where the migrant children arrive is named after Ford—especially poignant, given Ford’s signing of 1976 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act. The law had previously given preferential quotas to immigrants from Europe. With Ford’s signature, that preference was overturned, allowing those from the “Eastern hemisphere”—countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—to have a fighting chance.
Ford included a worried observation in his signature of the bill that is prescient today as migrant children land on his namesake airport:
This legislation will also facilitate the reunification of Mexican-American families by giving preference to Mexican nationals who are close relatives of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents, or who have needed job skills. I am concerned, however, about one aspect of the legislation which has the effect of reducing the legal immigration into this country from Mexico. Currently about 40,000 natives of Mexico legally immigrate to the United States each year. This legislation would cut that number in half.
The United States has a very special and historic relationship with our neighbor to the south. In view of this special status we have with the Mexican Government and the Mexican people, I will submit legislation to the Congress in January to increase the immigration quotas for Mexicans desiring to come to the United States.
Today, Ford’s home state has become a next step for children whose parents have been detained under President Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, a place where kids as young as just a few months old might get shipped off to be held until—if—they can reunite with their parents.
“Some of our children are from overseas: Rohingyan youth, Eritrean, Somani, many Central American kids,” Joel Bell, the branch director for Bethany Christian Services’ location, ticked off. “We also get immigrant refugee children from Central America who end up in a facility along the border and are transferred to our care from there.”
The kids coming from the border fall on two ends of the age spectrum: younger than a year old, and those entering adulthood, the unaccompanied minors who have increasingly become common. The majority of the cases Bell and his staff have dealt with in the past five years are from just south of Mexico, hailing from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They can usually only speak Spanish, have gone through the trauma of leaving their home and then being separated from their parents, and are usually in a state of distress.
“Really, the children are suffering from trauma, they’re suffering from grief,” Bell said. “We see how distraught they are at the separation from their parents.”
The Trump administration’s policy of separating children shifted the demographics of the children Bethany has been taking in recently, Christopher Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian, told The Daily Beast. “The average age was 12 and now it’s 7. We’ve seen in recent weeks the average age drop. In fact, we have an 8-month-old in care.”
Bell said Bethany Christian normally receives very short notice before the arrival of a child. “We find out within 12 to 72 hours that they’re arriving at the airport,” Bell said. Nor did Bethany get much advance warning from the federal government when the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” policy mandating separation. “We didn’t get a huge heads up on this one,” Palusky said. “But we’ve been trying to ramp up since then to get more foster care, especially in Michigan and Maryland, for those kids.”
The children don’t arrive with much—“as little as the clothing on their back, maybe a few personal items,” Bell said. “We get a lot of our arrivals in the middle of the night. It’s disorienting and confusing for the children. The more recent kids are really sad, more upset than we’ve ever seen in the past.
“I’ve been doing this for years,” Bell added for emphasis. “I’ve never had children crying like this.”
The kids are often not only sad, they’re downright confused, particularly because, at their “tender ages,” many of these kids don’t have any concept of geography or the politics of immigration and only, simply, want their mom and dad. “I’m not sure how much they’re told beforehand [about where they’re going and why],” Bell said. “But they’re young enough and new enough to know less, they’re too disoriented and confused to know where this is. I don’t know that ‘Michigan’ would mean a lot to them anyway.”
Bell recounted a story from a staff member who picked up a child in one of these middle-of-the-night runs: “The child wasn’t even fully aware that she was in the United States when she entered our care. They’re small children and a lot is unknown to them. It highlights how confusing the whole thing is to them.”
When they arrive, it’s hard to integrate kids into the life of a normal child. Much of the staff is bicultural and bilingual, which helps children feel a bit more comfortable. Bell said therapy is a must, and schooling starts immediately, “to create a sense of safety and order.”
“They’re experiencing secondary trauma” from leaving not only the only place they knew as home but also the care of the people they trust most in the universe, their parents, he said. What makes it worse is that many of the kids don’t even know where their parents are—and it’s hard for the littlest ones to imagine where Texas is in relation to Michigan, for example.
“We try to help kids express what they’re feeling but also not get stuck in it,” Bell said. “They were unexpectedly taken away from the person who cared for them, and after all that they’ve been through, they’re separated from their parents.”
What’s at the top of the children's minds, however, is getting in touch with their parents. “They need to know who in their world is safe,” Bell said.
The children, too young to understand what’s happening to them, still don’t understand where their parents are or why they’re not with them. “My wife was volunteering at one of the schools that we run,” Palusky recounted. “And there’s this one girl that she talked to me about. She said that girl, every single time she sees her, she always asks, ‘Where’s my mom? Where’s my mom?’ And then there’s a boy, he’s 5 or 6, they have a nap time at the preschool, and he wakes up and every single time he asks, ‘Where’s my dad? Where’s my dad? Where’s my dad?’ We’re seeing patterns. They want to know where their parents are. They’re traumatized.”
On its own initiative, Bethany’s staff has taken up the task of trying to help separated children answer that question. Case workers call up detention centers in search of the missing moms and dads so that the children in their care can hear their parents’ voice again. “The deal we have worked out [with detention facilities] is that they’re allowed to talk to their parents once a week,” Palusky said. “The ones that we have been able to find, they can either do a Skype call or they can do a phone call.”
So much of the first few days are focused on trying to establish contact with detained parents, which has become increasingly difficult to do. “We used to have an easier, quicker time getting in touch with parents, but it’s taking longer now,” Bell said. But even when they can put a child in touch with a parent, the pain of separation is still there, Palusky said. “Even the ones who have been there for a while, they don’t get it. They don’t get why they’re not allowed to see their parents.”
Bell said that, at least for his location, the majority of kids eventually have been reunited with their parents, though the process can take months. But some of the kids Bell deals with don’t have parents, and his organization is focused on helping provide a parental structure for those kids.
“The [foster] system is really geared to children who have no other options,” Bell pointed out. “It’s for kids who don’t have parents to take care of them. This situation is particularly challenging because these children have parents. They need to be with their parents and be kept with their parents, it’s best for them. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want them [the kids] in institutions, I want them in families. But these kids have families. In the best case scenario, they should be with their parents.”