At Chicago shelters, kids separated at border from parents await reunions
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The piece of paper is filled with blue scribbles.
Toward the bottom is a child’s drawing, with a white half-circle over two small circles — a car. Near the top are four stars. If you look just so, they almost resemble the four that grace Chicago’s flag.
The artist isn’t from anywhere near Chicago, though. He’s a 9-year-old boy from Brazil. His drawing depicts the midnight car ride through Mexico he and his father took last month as they fled human traffickers. When they reached the United States, immigration authorities detained them.
They held his father in New Mexico. And they took the boy 1,000 miles away from him to Chicago.
He drew his picture this past week, and three others, as he waited to be reunited with his father. The lawyer representing him provided copies of the drawings to the Chicago Sun-Times and recounted his story.
The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy brought the boy and at least 65 other children to Chicago, where they have been staying at undisclosed locations far from their parents. Based on official statements, estimates have put the total number of children separated from their parents at the border by the federal government since October at more than 3,500.
It’s not clear what the children in Chicago eat, how they spend their days or how they get medical attention. Authorities won’t say or say they aren’t allowed to say.
It isn’t clear how many are in Chicago. Sen. Dick Durbin visited them a week ago and said the number was 66 — two-thirds of them under 13, with a third of the entire group 5 or younger.
Slowly, parents are tracking down their children. Lawyers are filing lawsuits. On Thursday, a judge in Chicago ordered that one boy be immediately released to his mother.
Records filed in federal court offer a peek into the temporary world of these children in Chicago. That’s where the story of “C.D.A.” — the boy who drew the pictures, whose name hasn’t been made public — came to light.
Limited details also have emerged about two other boys, ages 15 and 9, as well as a 10-year-old boy and a young girl, all of them from Brazil.
The boy released Thursday, whose name is Diogo, spent his ninth birthday in isolation after he got chickenpox. Another boy will celebrate his birthday in the coming week.
The parents of at least three of the children in Chicago are accused of entering the United States illegally. Attorneys say they tried to seek asylum and that, back home, they feared for their lives.
Advocates for the children in Chicago aren’t protesting the conditions the kids are living in. They just want to reunite the children with their parents.
“I don’t care if they’re at Disneyland,” said Amy Maldonado, C.D.A.’s lawyer. “If they’re being held away from their parents, that’s not OK. And it’s not Disneyland.”
The Chicago Sun-Times tracked down one shelter — on the South Side — where the children are staying. From the outside, it looks like a retirement home. The shelters are run by the Heartland Alliance, whose roots, in part, date to the late 1800s and Hull House founder Jane Addams.
“Our focus is on keeping the children safe and working as quickly as possible to coordinate the process of reuniting them with their families or sponsors here in the U.S. once that decision is made by ORR,” according to spokeswoman Mailee Garcia.
By email, Garcia said the “children spend time together throughout the day in classroom education, recreational activities and vocational training.”
Representatives of the federal agency Heartland is operating under contract with — the Office of Refugee Resettlement — didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. Garcia wouldn’t speak with a reporter. A Heartland attorney said the group “has shared all the information it can, subject to ORR restrictions.”
Garcia did provide photos and videos of what she called the “shelter environment” the kids have been living in. The images present what looks like a school.
Pictures of Winnie the Pooh and friends adorn the walls. International flags hang on a bulletin board that asks, “Where Are You From?” Cardboard cutouts hang from the ceiling in a room filled with desks and chairs. Drawings and art projects fill the walls. There’s a chalkboard with a rainbow on it and the word “Chicago” with two hearts drawn nearby.
There’s a TV for the kids to watch from a couch. A foosball table sits nearby. Windows let sunshine pour in to a room with sets of bunk beds and a desk with what appears to be a small radio. Another room has a boombox. Beside it are two video-game controllers and a Rubik’s Cube.
Lidia Karine Souza came to Chicago from Boston on Monday, believing she would be able to collect her son Diogo, whom she had not seen since she was arrested by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent on May 30. She is free on her own recognizance while her asylum petition is being processed.
After arriving in Chicago, she initially was allowed just two short visits with Diogo.
According to Souza’s lawyer Jesse Bless, at the first meeting, the mother could see her son. She could touch him. She could hold him. She could “wipe away tears on his face,” Bless said. “Anything that you’d expect a mother to do was done.”
But to get her son returned to her, Souza had to ask U.S. District Judge Manish Shah to intervene. On Thursday, Shah ordered Diogo released to her.
Afterward, speaking with reporters, Souza couldn’t take her hands off her boy.
In another case, a federal judge in Chicago blocked the government Friday from deporting dads without their children.
Maldonado, one of a team of lawyers who represent C.D.A. and a 15-year-old boy identified only as “W.S.R,” met with them this past week.
The conversations revealed more details about the children’s current lives, though the attorneys and parents weren’t allowed to see the shelter.
For example, Diogo told his mother he had been given six shots in the facility, Bless said. The boy said he got chicken pox and spent 20 days isolated from the other kids. His ninth birthday came during that time.
“While I had chickenpox, I was inside a room,” Diogo said through an interpreter after he was reunited with his mother. “And when I was out, I could play and see other children. And play in the classroom.”
The children are allowed one 20-minute call or two 10-minute calls a week with their parents, according to the lawyers.
Diogo wore jeans and a T-shirt during the first visit with his mother, Bless said — the boy’s own clothing, the attorney thinks. After his release, he appeared with his mother wearing a grey, long-sleeve shirt, jeans and Crocs.
C.D.A. and W.S.R. wore similar outfits to meet with Maldonado. She said she thought the clothing had been given to the boys.
C.D.A. told Maldonado he had been given sweet-and-sour chicken at the shelter and didn’t like it. But she said it “sounds like the food is better here, for the most part,” compared to what the boys were given by authorities before they arrived in Chicago.
Maldonado said the boys told her the people who work at the shelter don’t speak Portuguese, so the children just speak to each other.
Garcia, from Heartland, said Portuguese “is one of the approximately 30 languages our staff speaks” but would not say whether there’s a Portuguese speaker at every shelter.
Maldonado said C.D.A. and W.S.R. met after immigration officials detained their fathers. In the lawsuit, she said W.S.R. and his father fled a drug boss in Brazil who believed “they had made a police report that resulted in his arrest” and tried to enter the United States before being detained near the Mexican border.
W.S.R. has taken C.D.A. under his wing, Maldonado said. But, she added, “That’s not a fair position to put the 15-year-old in.” She said W.S.R. — who’s about to turn 16 — just “wants to be with his dad and he doesn’t care what country” he’s in.
It was while meeting with her clients that C.D.A. drew the picture of his midnight ride through Mexico. He also drew a picture of his plane ride from Brazil to Mexico and of a hammock strung between two palm trees — which he said was a place in Brazil he loves.
Heartland has, for years, been housing unaccompanied minors apprehended along the Mexican border. Across six Chicago facilities, it can take care of a little over 500 children at a time. According to its 2017 year-end report, Heartland keeps children in its custody for, on average, 34 days. Typically, the kids are then placed with a close family member.
Until April, the vast majority of the children in its custody had arrived at the border alone. That’s when the Trump administration instituted a zero-tolerance policy on immigrants caught trying to illegally enter the country from Mexico.
During the Obama administration, asylum-seeking families — particularly those with young children — would be released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after 20 days in one of the agency’s three family-detention centers.
President Donald Trump, in effect, created a two-lane immigration system in which children eventually can be placed with sponsors in this country while their parents are prosecuted and potentially deported.
After intense blowback, Trump issued an executive order June 20 that expands the use of family detention so immigrant children no longer would be separated from their parents. But a 1997 consent decree that mandates immigrant children be detained no longer than 20 days still appears to stand in the way of the administration’s plans.
It’s unclear what happens next. Some worry the government will convince the courts to reverse the consent decree, known as the Flores settlement. On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the more than 2,300 children who, in just one month, had been separated from their parents at the border.
If the cases of the Brazilian children in Chicago are any indication, that process might prove difficult.
The lawyer for C.D.A. and W.S.R. is hoping to convince a judge to reunite the children with their parents, just as Souza’s lawyers did Thursday.
Though Heartland is named in three federal lawsuits filed within a week, attorneys haven’t been critical of the agency. A lawyer for Heartland told the judge Thursday he didn’t oppose Souza’s request to be reunited with her son.
Court filings show that, to track down her son, Diogo’s mother did some sleuth work on Facebook, with the help of a woman whose daughter had been held in Chicago. The woman’s daughter met Diogo at a shelter here referred to as “Casa Guadalupe,” according to the filings.
Since arriving in Chicago from Boston, where he practices, Bless said he has received a great deal of support. Britt Miller, a Chicago partner at the law firm Mayer Brown, joined the fight to reunite Souza and Diogo.
“This is something that has brought the world together at a time that it seems to be splitting apart,” said Bless, who also represents a 10-year-old boy from Brazil being held in Chicago.
Maldonado, who lives in Michigan, said she found herself thinking about her clients while in her car on Lake Shore Drive. She said she looked up and saw a young boy peering at her through her window.
“I love this city,” she said. “It’s my favorite city in the country.”
It’s a city full of fun things for children to do, she said — but that’s not the Chicago her clients know or can experience because “they’re not free.”