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Grand Rapids — Migrant children as young as 4 months old who were separated from parents seeking asylum at the southern border show signs of trauma but are receiving good care in Michigan, lawmakers said Thursday after a rare tour of a foster care facility.

A bipartisan group of Michigan congressional members praised Bethany Christian Services of Grand Rapids after visiting an undisclosed facility where children placed in temporary foster homes go to receive health and educational services.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see very small children who should never have been taken from their parents thousands of miles away from the only person they’ve known,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

The lawmakers did not disclose the name, location or other details of the Bethany facility, citing privacy and security concerns. The media were not allowed on the tour.

Bethany has been caring for 50 to 60 separated children at a time, lawmakers said, but the number fluctuates. The agency recently began caring for a 12-year-old blind girl, a 4-month-old and a 6-month-old, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, who has been in regular contact with Bethany.

“They’re getting the babies,” Dingell said.

Bethany has already helped reunite some children with their parents, but clearly “not the majority of them,” said Kildee, who told The Detroit News the delegation saw “some very young children” at the facility.

“One clearly that was under 6 months old, and a number that were 4 or 5 years old,” Kildee said. “The kids, in the moment that we were there, were being well cared for, but there’s nothing that replaces the love of a parent.”

The Michigan lawmakers were joined by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Democrat who called President Donald Trump’s rescinded “zero tolerance” border policy a form of “state-sanctioned abuse on behalf of the United States.”

“I know that may sound strong, but I want every American to know that this is not right, what’s happening here,” said Ryan, who stood by his comparison despite criticism from U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland.

Some Latin American children were brought to the country to escape violence or sex trafficking, said Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California for House minority leader in 2017.

Huizenga backed away from television cameras as Ryan spoke during a press conference at Grand Valley State University. He said later he disagreed and was disappointed in the Ohio lawmaker’s comments.

“I clearly disagree with the stance the administration took on the separations,” said Huizenga, a Republican who has introduced legislation that would require the federal government to facilitate the reunification of families.

"But if we are going to make progress on this on a bipartisan manner, which is what the goal is and should be, then we’ve got to lower the temperature and the rhetoric.”

Government faces deadlines

The federal judge who blocked Trump’s zero tolerance policy last month ordered the government to reunite children under 5 years old with their parents by Tuesday and all kids by July 26.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday called the court-ordered deadlines “extreme” but told reporters the federal government is racing to reunite “under 3,000” children with their parents, according to The Washington Post.

Azar indicated that reunited families would likely remain together in Department of Homeland Security custody pending deportation hearings or asylum interviews.

Foster care workers caring for the separated kids believe the children should be reunited with their parents “in the community” instead of a detention center, Dingell said.

“Reuniting them with parents in cages is not the answer here,” she said.

The Bethany agency helps children call their parents twice a week, but lawmakers said their ability to connect can depend on the detention center where the parent is housed.

“You can have the best program on earth, but if that program is one that starts with the separation of a child from the only person they know, there’s a brutality there that you can’t see in the moment,” Kildee said.

Dingell said social workers at Bethany told her children coming to Michigan for foster services have clearly experienced more trauma than kids the agency has worked with in the past.

The Christian agency has worked with refugee children for many years. It has spoken out against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” but is contracting with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for separated kids.

“These social workers are angels,” Dingell said of Bethany staffers. “They’re trying to make sure the children can talk to their parents. Some detention centers hang up the phones and won’t even work with them."

Many children under Bethany’s care come from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They were separated from parents who remain at the southern U.S. border with Mexico, where they had attempted to illegally enter the country and seek asylum.

Reunification confusion

The agency knows where those parents are, Dingell said, but it does not know how it will reunite them with their parents by the upcoming deadlines.

The Trump administration implemented the controversial border policy with “no plan” for how to reunite parents and children it separated, Kildee argued.

Lawmakers saw only one infant during their tour of the health and education services facility, but the youngest children under Bethany’s care are staying with temporary foster parents on a full-time basis and not making day trips, Dingell said.

One child had been cared for in her home country by a grandmother while her mom worked in the United States and sent home earnings, Dingell said. Gangs found out the grandmother had money and came to her home and assaulted her. She brought the child to the United States for safety, Dingell said.

“I want to keep terrorists out of the country, and I want to keep the MS-13 gang out of this country, but I don’t want to lose the heart (of the country) and the compassion," she said.

A Bethany spokeswoman said Thursday the agency is focusing on reuniting the children with their families.

“Collectively we hope to continue to partner with churches, community organizations and elected officials to advocate for legislative change so this crisis doesn’t happen again," according to Bethany. "It is by working together that we can truly make a difference in the lives of these children.”

GOP legislative effort

Michigan lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been attempting to line up Bethany site visits through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Huizenga had attempted to visit a facility Friday with Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, but they were denied access by the federal agency, which typically requires a two-week period to process requests.

Huizenga said he rearranged his schedule to join Democrats on Thursday’s tour.

“The quality of care is something that has to be emphasized,” he said, praising Bethany. Not all children at the facility were separated from their parents at the border, and not all are from Latin America, he said, noting the agency's long-running record on refugee services.

Huizenga has introduced the Family Reunification Act, which would instruct the Homeland Security secretary and other federal officials to use “all necessary means” to reunite children and parents recently separated at or near the border.

It had 21 co-sponsors as of Friday, including 18 Republicans and three Democrats.

Huizenga said he is urging House leadership to take up the reunification bill absent action on a larger immigration package, which he would also like to see.

“We cannot depend on any administration’s whims — Republicans or Democrats — and you can’t depend on court rulings or activist courts saying, well, ‘We don’t think…” or “We think you must… .’ We need to have legislative action on this,” he said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

Twitter: @jonathanoosting 

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