The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy has resulted in close to 3,000 children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since early May.
An unspecified number of those children have been resettled in Chicago as their asylum and immigration cases make their way through the courts.
Their parents are strewn in detention centers and jails across the country and are likely in the dark as to where their children are and under whose custody.
And despite President Donald Trump’s executive order issued on Wednesday that expands family detention and prohibits the separation of children from their parents, the federal government has not allocated resources to put better protocols in place to guarantee parents and their children who already have been separated will be reunited.
Migrant children separated from their families at the border are being housed in facilities operated by the Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit that has resettled unaccompanied migrant children in Chicago and across the Midwest for over 30 years.
In a statement, Heartland Alliance confirmed that it has “recently” provided “safe shelter and care for” children who have been separated from their families at the border in recent months. The statement goes on to read that Heartland Alliance’s “first priority is the safety and welfare of the children” in their care. Part of that mission involves “keeping their identities and details of their circumstances confidential.”
Heartland Alliance has not provided the total number of children separated from their families at the border currently held in its facilities.
Unaccompanied child migrants must stay in shelter care until they are released to an approved sponsor, such as a relative or family friend. According to Heartland Alliance, children remain in their custody for an average of 34 days and are almost always placed with a close family member.
Contrary to what Trump said in recent weeks, the current practice of indiscriminately taking children from their parents at the border is unique to his administration.
On April 11, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors along the southern border to “adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy” for unauthorized border crossings, according to a copy of the memorandum.
Previous administrations had no blanket policy to separate all families crossing the U.S. border illegally.
Over the last decade, there has been a surge in families and unaccompanied minors attempting to cross into the United States from Central America seeking asylum from violent criminal gangs, gender violence and political oppression. Senior members of the Trump administration have said that the zero-tolerance policy is intended to act as a deterrent against further unauthorized border crossings.
When families or individuals are apprehended by the Border Patrol, they’re taken into Homeland Security custody. As outlined by The Washington Post, officials then refer any adult “believed to have committed any crime, including illegal entry” to the Justice Department for prosecution. If convicted, adult migrants are most often sentenced to time served. That kicks off deportation proceedings.
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy makes it increasingly likely for immigrants charged with illegal entry — a misdemeanor for first-time offenders — to be deported.
“Adding it all up,” the Post concludes, “… the Trump administration is operating a system in which immigrant families that are apprehended at the border get split up, because children go into a process in which they eventually get placed with sponsors in the country while their parents are prosecuted and potentially deported.”
Tara Tidwell-Cullen, director of communications for the National Immigrant Justice Center, a legal nonprofit based in Chicago, said its lawyers have had difficulty litigating their asylum cases as family members are strewn across the country.
“A challenge that we’ve had is locating parents. It’s difficult to represent a child in an asylum case when their parents are being detained in different parts of the country — they’re the ones that really know what they’re running away from,” Tidwell-Cullen said.
Tidwell-Cullen also worries that many of these children will be permanently separated from their parents; in recent weeks, some parents have even been deported to their home country with little to no knowledge on their children’s whereabouts.
“It’s inherently complicated litigating these cases with the laws that are on the books. The government’s recent inhumane family separation policies only make it that much harder and caused harm in many different ways,” Tidwell-Cullen said.
Because of these complications, Tidwell-Cullen said the National Immigrant Justice Center is “very frantically recruiting pro-bono attorneys” to meet the demand.
Amid mounting public pressure, Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that bars agents from separating families apprehended at the border and instead orders agents to detain families together for an indefinite period of time.
But as reported by The New York Times, the Justice Department is unsure whether it will continue to separate families due to a federal decree that mandates children should be released from immigration custody after 20 days. The Times is also reporting that those children who were already separated from the parents at the border will not be grandfathered into the new policy.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.