King County’s separated children

A local non-profit houses several immigrant youths who were separated from their parents at the border. But for how long?

Stories of converted warehouses and Walmarts keeping immigrant children locked away from their parents have raised the ire of many across the country over the last month—prompting nationwide protests.

As the federal government attempts to comply with court orders to reunite undocumented immigrant children with their parents after being separated from their families at the southern border as a result of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, the problem can at times feel distant. But in our own backyard, seven such youth detainees currently still reside in nonprofit run facilities across Washington state—most of whom are kept in a single shelter in Seattle.

Of the seven separated children still in Washington state, five of them are staying at Casa de los Amigos, a shelter in Seattle. Run by the local homeless youth nonprofit YouthCare, the shelter houses undocumented immigrant youth from 12-17 years old who either were apprehended at the border alone or were separated from their families over the past several months. “We have had six young people come our way from separations,” YouthCare VP and development and communications officer Jody Waits said. In a follow-up email, she clarified that one child was recently reunited with a parent. (YouthCare staff would not disclose the location of the shelter house.)

What remains unknown is how long the five undocumented minors will be kept in Seattle. A federal judge in San Diego recently ordered that the Trump administration undo the results of its family separation policy, but the federal government has already missed a July 10 deadline to reunite all youth under the age of 5 with their families. The deadline imposed by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw for all other youth to be reunited is July 26, and the Trump administration has come under fire for not speeding up its procedures.

Interviews with immigration attorneys, shelter providers, and faith communities that offer humanitarian support to the asylum seekers paint a picture of uncertainty that underscores the laborious process of reuniting the seven children with their parents. The future is even murkier for the kids whose parents have already been deported.

Waits wrote in an email that YouthCare is “actively working on family reunification for each of the young people in our care.” She added that staff are working to gain information about the current location of family members.

The regional branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—one of the federal agencies coordinating the reunification effort—did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the five children currently in YouthCare’s custody.

Here in Washington, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)—an organization that seeks to ensure that unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children have legal representation during their deportation proceedings—has represented each of the 11 kids from 12-17 years old residing in the state who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy. According to Janet Gwilym, KIND’s managing attorney in Seattle, some of the kids started to trickle into Washington during the separation practice’s trial period, a few months before U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announced the “zero tolerance” policy on May 7.

Of the 11 children who have been housed in shelters in the state, two who were separated from their parents before the policy was enacted have since left—one to be reunited with parents in another state, and another to be sent to live with other family members living in the country. A recent youth arrival was reunited with a family member in another state last week, and another child at Casa de los Amigos recently reunited with a parent, reducing the current count to seven children who remain separated from their family in facilities funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). (ORR is a subdivision of HHS that oversees the unaccompanied immigrant youth program.) Gwilym noted that “we haven’t had any kids deported yet.”

The federally funded facilities throughout Washington have different levels of security ranging from short-term shelters (the least restrictive) and long-term foster care to staff-secure facilities that customarily have more fencing and staff oversight. Although Washington state doesn’t have the most restrictive secure facilities designated for children who have exhibited behavioral issues or have been charged with a crime, Gwilym says the state does house some children who come from those facilities in other states.

In contrast to reports that emerged in mid-June about roughly 1,500 unaccompanied immigrant minors being detained at a former Walmart in Texas, the youth at Casa de los Amigos have space to exercise and maintain their own privacy. While at Casa de los Amigos, the bilingual staff provide the minors with case management, trauma-informed physical and mental health care, educational services, and pro bono legal services offered by KIND attorneys. And according to YouthCare spokesperson Brittny Nielsen, each minor has their own room, and they frequently play soccer in a nearby park or go to the local pool under the supervision of a staff member.

While the children aren’t free to leave on their own accord, both Waits and Nielsen stressed that Casa de los Amigos is not a detention program for immigrant youth. “They are not restrained in any way, shape, or form,” Nielsen wrote in an email.

Although Gwilym didn’t say where the other two separated children who are not in the YouthCare shelter are located, she noted that each ORR facility in Western Washington has housed at least one child who was separated from their parent as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy.

However, the shelters don’t always know that they are housing children as a result of the family separation policy. According to Waits, YouthCare did not apply for an additional contract in order to receive children who were recently separated from their families at the border—they simply received them through an existing contract for unaccompanied immigrant youth in general.

Representatives from two other ORR facilities in Western Washington – including Renton’s Friends of Youth (a therapeutic staff secure facility) and Fife’s Selma R. Carson Home (a staff-secure facility) – maintained that their facilities did not house any minors who were separated from their parents as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy.

“The majority of them are at the YouthCare Shelter at Casa de los Amigos … and that’s because they’re a short-term shelter,” said Gwilym. “The others are facilities that tend to get kids who were at other shelters first, and then they get transferred there.” Kids who end up needing more extensive, restrictive and ongoing behavioral, and mental healthcare get moved to foster care facilities—like Friends of Youth.

YouthCare’s Seattle office. The local nonprofit runs Casa de Los Amigos, which houses immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Photo by Josh Kelety

YouthCare’s Seattle office. The local nonprofit runs Casa de Los Amigos, which houses immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Photo by Josh Kelety

These facilities are run by nonprofit organizations in the region that have long received federal funding—in the form of grants from the HHS—to run facilities to house and care for undocumented immigrant minors while they go through immigration court proceedings. The contracts for these services that YouthCare and other nonprofit providers hold are sizeable, and have been ramping up over time. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, YouthCare received over $1.3 million in federal grants for their Casa de los Amigos shelter. In 2018, HHS awarded them $1.7 million. Nationally, federal grants to organizations who provide services to unaccompanied immigrant minors have increased over time, spiking from $74 million in 2007 to $958 million in 2017, according to the Associated Press.

For over a decade, YouthCare has been contracted by the federal government to take custody of unaccompanied immigrant youth apprehended at the border—such as the surge minors fleeing violence in Central American countries who were caught crossing the border alone in 2014.

“Of the 20 spaces that we’re able to offer [at Casa de los Amigos]… the majority are going to be young people who were separated from their family before crossing the border,” said Waits.

But that changed after the Trump administration instituted its “zero tolerance” immigration policy. “It’s really new in the last few months that we’ve seen young people who have been separated from their family,” she added. “It’s a small portion of our client base. It’s not something that we’d seen prior to this time.”

Terry Pottmeyer, president and CEO of Friends of Youth, said that the federal contracts don’t distinguish between youth that were separated from their families or came here alone.

YouthCare’s Casa de los Amigos facility may have ended up receiving a majority of the separated children because it provides short-term shelter services.

While YouthCare is a private entity, it is a nonprofit, and doesn’t have the same financial incentives tied up in the detention of immigrants, as an organization like the publicly traded Geo Group, which runs the for-profit Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for adult immigrants.

Gwilym said that she doesn’t think that local nonprofits are benefiting from Trump’s prior family separation. “It’s a big strain on the program locally … [separated youths are] definitely taking away bed space from other kids.”

While YouthCare has long pursued federal contracts for their services at Casa de los Amigos, their leadership is vocally critical of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. “YouthCare categorically condemns the atrocities at the border and demands that the government reunites the families they have actively separated,” YouthCare CEO Melinda Giovengo wrote in a statement published on June 22.

YouthCare staff view themselves as serving youth who are victims of a flawed immigration system and poverty and violence in their countries of origin. “The reality is that these are youth who are homeless in our country. Until there is not any single youth still to serve we will provide loving and meaningful care,” Waits said. “It is a longstanding commitment on our part.”

While illegal crossings at the southern border have been falling steadily since the ‘90s, migrants seeking asylum from several Central American countries—sometimes referred to as the “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras)—have been increasing. In the first half of 2016, over 27,000 unaccompanied children from those countries were caught at the southwest border (along with over 32,000 families), up from below 5,000 in 2009. According to researchers, increased poverty and violence in the Northern Triangle are the primary reasons for the migration surge. According to the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, “Violence has been endemic to the region since the 1980s, causing fragile institutions, weak or corrupt police and high gang activity. These countries suffer the world’s first, fourth, and fifth highest homicide rates, respectively, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.”

Under Trump’s ”zero tolerance” policy—which he altered with an executive order in late June, while still maintaining his administration’s position of denying asylum to most migrants—once families were apprehended at the border by U.S. Border Patrol agents, they were detained at agency stations for up to 72 hours while they were processed. Minors were then handed to the Department of Health and Human Services for placement in a non-adult facility, while their parents were transferred to federal adult detention centers to be criminally prosecuted.

As the July 26 deadline to reunite all families quickly approaches, the Trump administration is scrambling to reunify over 2,500 nationwide children with their parents at six to eight undisclosed ICE locations. Doing so will prove to be a challenge in Washington, where the parents of “about half” of the seven remaining children have already been deported, according to KIND’s Gwilym. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with those cases,” she said.

For the children in Washington facilities who have yet to be reunited with their non-deported parents, it’s unclear where they will be placed. “It’s been changing by the hour, about what will happen once the children are reunified with their parents, and whether or not the kids will end up in a family detention facility with the parents,” Gwilym said. On July 16, a federal judge also ordered a temporary halt to deportations of reunited families, following a request from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a statement released on Monday, July 16, HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer defended the lengthy reunification process. “The court has emphasized clear goals for the process of reunification: ensuring the safety and welfare of the children in question, confirming the parentage of the adults in question, and reunifying the parents and children as quickly as possible. HHS shares those goals. We have appreciated the opportunity to work with the court toward them, and will continue to do so,” she wrote. “The department has been operating in good faith and earnestly trying to comply with court orders, including the rapidly approaching deadline for reunification. Our interpretation of the court’s order is that HHS must make a determination of parentage, fitness, and safety before reunifying families, but that HHS need not undertake the fuller process of vetting for children’s safety that HHS would ordinarily conduct in its operations.”

In the meantime, the kids’ YouthCare case managers help them find other relatives, or people in the community who can act as sponsors. The ORR’s vetting system for sponsors entails a detailed process that includes background checks, identity verification, or confirmation of relation to the child. Purchasing a plane ticket for the child to be sent to an out-of-state sponsor also falls on the potential caretaker’s shoulders, which can be costly for relatives who already have difficulty making ends meet, reported The New York Times.

KIND aren’t involved in finding the kids sponsors or reuniting them with their parents, but they do offer the children legal aid. This is especially significant because unaccompanied minors have historically lacked legal counsel. According to Syracuse University statistics collected through May 2018, nearly 70 percent of the about 114,727 juveniles who entered deportation proceedings in fiscal year 2018 lacked legal representation.

The KIND staff provide a know your rights presentation to the kids at the shelters, an orientation on the immigration system, and inform them of the types of release that they can apply for. They also do an intensive one-on-one with the children to understand their history and the circumstances in their home country that led them to come to the U.S. “We use all that information to figure out if they are eligible to apply for some kind of legal relief,” Gwilym noted.

They’ve also tried to contact parents to determine what outcome the parents desire for their child: release to a relative in the U.S., or reunification with the parents regardless if they’re deported. Although KIND knows where all of the parents are located, Gwilym said they have not had contact with the parents of a couple of the remaining seven children. Most of the children have had contact with their parents on the phone since they were separated from them, she added.

In the meantime, the nonprofit Church Council of Greater Seattle is standing by to help the kids in Washington shelters—including the ones at Seattle’s Casa de los Amigos—or their parents who will be reuniting with them by offering them temporary housing, transportation or “just a faithful, kind presence to try to let folks know that there are supportive community members who want to see them reunited safe and well,” said Briana Brannan, a Church Council of Greater Seattle organizer.

Thus far, the Church Council of Greater Seattle has only helped the mothers detained in SeaTac’s Federal Detention Center and Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center, but they are prepared to help the seven kids on the next step of their journey. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) estimates that 55 parents detained in Washington were separated from their children at the border, although none of the parents had children in the state’s shelters.

As of Wednesday (July 18), the Church Council of Greater Seattle is set to assist 12 mothers who were detained in Washington with their asylum seeking process or reunifying them with their children. Church Council of Greater Seattle has collected donations from community members to cover some of the parents’ plane tickets.

“Each person has the right to safety, and well-being, and to stay with their loved ones,” Brannan said when asked why she helped the asylum seekers. “When our government is involved in actions that threaten the safety … of families and individuals, as residents and citizens of this country we have a role to write a different narrative of compassion, of unity, and of justice.”