Michigan officials, groups try to help immigrant children

Blake Alsup
The Detroit News
Immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a former Job Corps site that now houses them, on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he found it "troubling" to see two of his Democratic colleagues turned away from the Miami-area detention center for migrant children. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Michigan officials and social service agencies say they're trying to help the dozens of immigrant children being housed in the state after being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Detroit News reported Friday that 58 children are in the care of Bethany Christian Services, a social services organization in Grand Rapids. Multiple calls on Monday and Tuesday seeking an update on the state of the children and efforts to reunite them with their parents were not returned.

Samaritas, a Michigan organization providing services to refugees, has submitted two proposals with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to reinstate a foster care program it ended in 2015 in order to take care of immigrant children separated from their parents, a spokesperson said Tuesday.

Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said that as "one small department of state government," its role in helping the affected children is limited because their status is a federal issue.

Levengood said the agency has heard of efforts to have children in custody speak with their parents by phone.

"We are encouraged to hear that federal agencies are taking steps to connect children and parents by phone and we hope that that process continues and will be ongoing throughout the time that they are separated," she said.

Susan Reed, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said although Bethany Christian Services has said the average child's age is 7, there are many who are younger, including infants.

"I’ve signed more authorizations for Play-Doh than I previously have in my career and we’ve stocked up our crayons to try to improve our communication and engagement with our clients," Reed said.

The children are among about 2,300 youngsters who were taken from their families under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy that calls for prosecuting all adults caught crossing into the U.S. illegally. 

Facing an intense outcry over the issue, Trump issued an executive order last week to keep families together while in custody. 

But Reed said she doubts whether the order will prevent further family separations, noting that a 1997 class-action settlement allows families caught at the border to be detained no longer than 20 days.

A federal judge in California, Dolly Gee, is expected to decide whether to uphold Trump's order, which seeks to suspend that time limit.

"The executive order is really predicated on the assumption that (Gee) ... will lift the current requirement in the settlement that the government only detain children for up to three weeks," Reed said. "I don’t see any reason why Judge Gee would do that simply because the government wants her to."

Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the group is not directly representing any of the children, but is providing "technical assistance" to help lawyers represent them.

"We had a big training for immigration lawyers and other who want to do bond hearings a few months ago and then most recently, we had done a community convening in the Latino community here in southeast Michigan," Moss said. "We’ve been working in the community and trying to be a resource and available."

The national ACLU organization is planning a national "Families Belong Together" day of action Saturday, with rallies planned in Detroit and four other Michigan cities.