Lawmakers ask Mich. to help reunify immigrant children

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
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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.

A group of Michigan lawmakers on Friday formally asked the state to help immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border and placed in foster care here.

But the governor's office says Michigan has no role in tracking the 58 children and that the federal government, not the state, is responsible for their placement and reunification. 

"The federal government hasn’t provided any information regarding the minors, and we have no way of tracking them," said Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder.

The majority of the separated children in the state are being housed in West Michigan by Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. The social service organization said it had tracked down the parents of virtually all children on Wednesday. Most parents were arrested and are being held in detention centers near the southern U.S. border.

State Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, and four other Democratic state lawmakers sent a letter Friday pressuring Snyder to get the state involved in reuniting the children with their families and spell out a plan for doing so. Representatives quoted from Michigan's Children's Foster Care Manual, arguing the state is responsible for the operations conducted at Bethany Christian Services.

The letter — also signed by Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit; and Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills —included a list of 10 questions probing Snyder on when the federal government contacted the state and what is being done to reunify the children.

But Heaton said the federal government is working directly with the foster care agency, and the children were not designated as refugees upon arriving in Michigan.

"We have tried to obtain this information for years — not limited to the Trump administration but under the Obama administration as well — and were refused," she said.

The children in Michigan are between 8 months and 17 years old. They have been placed in Muskegon, Paw Paw and Grand Rapids, said Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which has expressed concern this week about the children's welfare. 

"We are assessing what steps we want to take," Arbulu said Friday. "We are really concerned with establishing communication between child and parent, and right now, the process to do so is very disorganized. When it's difficult to make contact, it only makes unnecessary scars on the child."

Greimel said he's outraged by the governor's response since Bethany Christian Services is regulated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and is subject to state oversight. 

"Bethany Christian Services also runs the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program for the State of Michigan ... the state has a responsibility to ensure their safety," Greimel said. 

"Foster care agencies are regulated by the state and if they're not tracking, then they're not doing their job. We need to know what did Michigan do during administering this program when the federal government placed dozens of children and infants in our state. Perhaps most importantly, did the state ask for information that would allow these kids to be reunited with their families?"

Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas are the only two agencies with state Unaccompanied Refugee Minor programs. Samaritas, a Detroit group that helps migrants, has filled applications to assist children separated at the border, but it does not currently have any.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the process of separating children from families while continuing the “zero-tolerance” policy, under which adults suspected of entering the U.S. illegally are incarcerated while awaiting prosecution.

Arbulu said his department is concerned about children with medical and special needs. 

"We would have jurisdiction over any of those children, and we've learned one is deaf and are watching that carefully," Arbulu said. "I think we have to think carefully about uniting parents with children, and it depends on where." 

Arbulu said they are against risking having the children be deported with their parents. 

"If the parents are being deported back to where the child will be at risk, that's not good, and we have to be careful on how we word this," Arbulu said. "I would hope those in authority realize the importance of safety in the situation."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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