If it wasn’t bad enough that tens of thousands migrant children are being held in temporary detention, the system designed to move them into permanent homes is breaking down.
Children waiting for reunification with families or official sponsors are held in facilities like the youth detention center at Tornillo, Texas. As opposed to detention facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Tornillo center is very much a youth-oriented facility run by a non-profit group contracted to do so by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
A colleague and I visited the center in September and were duly impressed with the physical setup and the staff’s commitment to creating an environment that is very much focused on the needs and comfort of the children housed there.
We randomly entered a number of the large, air-conditioned housing tents and found the kids to be, for the most part, content, positively engaged with each other and with staff members.
Still, this is by no means where these children should be. They are separated from family, many traumatized by the travails of coming to and across the border, all arriving without a parent or other relative.
Under the radar is a looming crisis with profound implications for children: a breakdown of the system designed to move unaccompanied minors into the care of parents or related sponsors have committed to creating a stable, new normal for young people who have escaped the chaos and violence in their home communities.
“It is increasingly likely that within 30 days we will have a new and dangerous crisis over unaccompanied minor child migrants who have come across the border,” a senior government official working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told me earlier this week. “New government policies have significantly slowed the process of moving children out of the detention centers, creating a tremendous backlog of children stuck in facilities like Tornillo.”
A case in point. When I visited Tornillo in September the facility housed about 1,300 young people. As of a few days ago, the population had soared to more 2,800.
Nationally, there are nearly 15,000 migrant children now being held at more than 100 shelters that are about busting at the seams.
The problem is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created a dysfunctional bottleneck. In essence, the rate of children coming into the shelter system is far exceeding the number leaving. For instance, last week, unaccompanied minor detention centers across the U.S. discharged 936 children to families of designated sponsors but took in 1,561.
What’s the problem?
It starts with new protocols that require every adult in households scheduled to receive an unaccompanied minor to be fingerprinted by the FBI, along with a background check to be sure that children will not be sent to environments that would expose minors to individuals with criminal backgrounds or suspected of being, say, human traffickers. Of course, nobody would disagree with the intent here.
But that doesn’t explain what’s actually going on. Right now, according to parents and sponsors, some 1,321 households waiting for children who are still detained in Tornillo have been cleared by the FBI for weeks, with no explanation from DHS about why these kids aren’t being released.
And the new requirement that everyone – not just the sponsors - in the household be cleared by the FBI has drastically slowed the process of moving children out of detention, without evidence that any of this has appreciably increased identification of people who would pose a threat.
It’s difficult to understand the underlying dynamics of this situation, perhaps yet another self-inflicted crisis by the administration trying to rev up support for Donald Trump’s ill-conceived border wall.
Alternatively, like last Spring’s failed zero tolerance policy that separated children from parents at the border, maybe these new barriers to permanent placement of unaccompanied minors represent the latest hardship, a cruel strategy gratuitously imposed to deter immigration.
But, whatever the rationale, if steps aren’t taken immediately to release the pressure and move kids out of detention to the homes waiting for them, come the middle of January, the human calamity on the southern border could get considerably worse.
Irwin Redlener, M.D., is president emeritus and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund and director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He is a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and the author of The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.