Sixty-six of the nearly 3,000 immigrant children separated from their families at the border in recent weeks are being temporarily housed in shelters across Chicago, Sen. Dick Durbin said Friday.
The children — two-thirds of whom are under the age of 13 and one-third under the age of 5 — are temporarily staying in one of nine shelters operated by the Heartland Alliance, a social justice nonprofit that assists immigrants with housing and legal assistance across the Midwest.
Durbin’s comments marked the first time precise numbers had been provided regarding the children in Chicago-area shelters. The Springfield Democrat toured one of the Heartland facilities Friday before his news conference and indicated the children were receiving proper care.
Durbin called the children “victims” of the Trump administration and said the separations from their families are “inhumane” and “cruel.”
Evelyn Diaz, president of Heartland Alliance, joined Durbin at Friday’s news conference, and both were quick to condemn the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration enforcement policy for unnecessarily separating children from their parents.
Heartland is under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Durbin and Diaz also called on Congress to remedy the situation by passing comprehensive immigration reform that prioritizes keeping families together and makes it easier for immigrants seeking asylum at the southern border.
Durbin criticized the executive order President Donald Trump issued Wednesday that ended family separations during border apprehensions for not providing resources or guidelines to help immigrant parents relocate their children after their families have been torn apart.
In recent weeks, images and audio of unaccompanied children crying for their parents in cages near the border have riveted many Americans.
But those detention centers — operated by Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security — greatly differ from those under the directive of Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Since 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services has awarded nearly $5 billion in grants through the the Office of Refugee Resettlement, mostly to religious and nonprofit organizations in 18 states, to house children who arrive in the country unaccompanied.
By law, Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters are not designed for long-term residency. Instead, they serve as intermediaries, usually placing children with a parent, a close family member, a family friend, or, in rare cases, in a foster home within a month. These shelters typically provide an array of social services, such as education, food, clothing, and mental health services.
Still, many immigrant rights and legal advocates worry that Heartland Alliance and other shelters the office oversees are not prepared to care for babies and toddlers.
On Friday, Diaz said Heartland Alliance’s facilities will continue to care for as many as children as it can adequately handle.
“Heartland Alliance will not turn our back on vulnerable children or their parents,” she said.
In total, Heartland Alliance says it is currently caring for 451 immigrant and refugee children across their nine shelters in Chicago. They have the capacity to serve 509 children at a time.
It is unclear if or when more children separated from their families at the border will arrive in Chicago.
As of Friday morning, Heartland Alliance has managed to contact a relative of at least two-thirds of the children it received after being separated from their parents at the border, Diaz said.
On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security said it had reunited 500 migrant children with their parents after being separated at the border since May. It was unclear how many of those children were still being detained with their families.
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.