Group poised to reunite migrant kids held in Michigan with parents

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
In this June 1, 2018, file photo, children hold signs during a demonstration in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Miramar, Florida.

Now that immigrant families who tried to enter the U.S. illegally will no longer be separated, a group helping dozens of such children sent to Michigan is poised to reunite them with their parents.

It just needs to hear from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The group, Bethany Christian Services, said it has tracked down the parents of virtually all 50 children for whom it had helped find shelter in Michigan. Most parents were arrested and are being held in detention centers near the Southern border.

“We hope to hear something really soon,” said Dona Abbott, director of Bethany’s refugee and immigrant programs. “I know we have children who are eager to hear from their parents.”

She said the reunions may be delayed as the federal government seeks to find places where the families can live together while awaiting decisions on their bids for asylum.

“Now we just need to make sure they find a place where the kids will be protected,” Abbott said.

Bethany, based in Grand Rapids, and other social service organizations that help migrants were buoyed by President Donald Trump’s decision to reverse the directive of separating families at the southern border.

Samaritas, a Detroit group that helps migrants, had been gearing up to find enough foster and group homes for 60 children expected by the end of the summer.

The group is relieved, not for itself but for the kids, said John Yim, a Samaritas supervisor. A foster home is no substitute for one’s parents, he said.

“We were hearing concerns from families (wondering) if they’ll face the same process,” he said.

Yim made the comments while attending the group’s World Refugee Day picnic at Arthur Basse Park in Deaborn.

Several people attending the picnic said they knew firsthand the stress of coming to a strange land with a strange culture

Assmaa Almahamid, who fled war-torn Syria with her husband and daughter in 2011, said she couldn’t imagine having her daughter taken away from her at the border.

 “I wouldn’t have left (Syria) if I had to leave her,” she said.

As Bethany waits to hear from the federal government about plans to reunite the Central American families, it hopes to receive more information than it did when receiving the children.

In some cases, the organization was told little more than the child’s name and age, Bethany officials said.

Sometimes Bethany wasn’t told where the arrested parent was being held. In those cases, social workers began looking for the parent by calling detention centers in the state where the child was taken into custody. The effort sometimes took several weeks.

Abbott said she believed the process would run smoother now. She also pronounced herself an optimist.

“I’m hoping we will hear today, maybe even in a day or two,” she said.

When they’re contacted, they’ll be ready, she said. During their searches for the parents in the criminal justice system, they’ve been successful in finding nearly every one, she said.

One reason the social service organizations are so relieved by Trump’s reversal is because of the young age of the separated children. The average age of the child that Bethany is handling now is 7 years old compared with 12 years old a year ago, Michigan Department of Civil Rights Chief Executive Agustin Arbulu told CNN on Wednesday night.

The organizations are used to dealing with older kids, they said. What they found with the separations were more children under the age of 5, including one who was 8 months old.

The young age and the lack of information about their parents’ whereabouts were very traumatic for the youngsters, social workers said.

The children repeatedly asked where their parents were, and the foster parents had to say they didn’t know.

As a result, the children experienced trouble eating and sleeping, social workers said.

They acted out, had temper tantrums or went on crying jags.