Bethany: Young kids separated under 'zero tolerance' reunited with parents
Bethany Christian Services said Tuesday that all migrant children under the age of 5 forcibly separated under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" border policy have been reunited with their parents or had travel plans to be reunited later in the day.
Seven children, placed in Bethany foster services in Michigan and Maryland, were set for reunification, officials with the Grand Rapids-based agency said earlier Tuesday. It was the deadline ordered by a federal judge who struck down President Donald Trump's border policy amid outcry.
The timing and location of the reunifications were expected to vary by child and parent, Bethany officials said in a morning press call with reporters. In some cases, parents were brought to Michigan or Maryland.
“Many will be reunified when the parent is released from detention,” said Dona Abbott, Bethany’s director of refugee and immigrant services. Officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "will bring families to an undisclosed location. We or the agency providing care will bring the child to that location and the reunification will happen there under ICE custody.”
Three Central American fathers who had been detained at the southern border were reunited with their children in Michigan on Tuesday, said Susan Reed, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. The fathers had been relocated to the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek.
Two of the fathers are from Honduras and were separated from their 3-year-old sons, Abril Valdez of the ACLU of Michigan told The Associated Press.
"They have no connection to Michigan other than the fact their children were placed here by the government after the separation," Reed said. It was not immediately clear where the families would go next.
"We are so happy for these children that they're getting reunited with their parents, but it's going to be difficult if the government's plan is to bring all the parents here and then release them in this community without connections."
Reed said her organization is trying to connect the parents with support services, as are attorneys directly representing them. Bethany said it also is working with the federal government to provide relief services to the families, including temporary housing if needed.
The nonprofit agency has a long history of working with refugee children and opposed the reversed Trump policy that resulted in the separation of parents and children who illegally entered the United States to seek asylum.
“The forced separation of refugee children from asylum-seeking families is a gaping wound in our country, and this wound cannot even begin to heal until every child is reunited with their families,” said Bethany President and CEO Chris Palusky.
“It is never OK to separate a child from its family when they’re seeking asylum. They are fleeing. The definition of refugee is someone who is fleeing for their lives or security.”
The agency said Tuesday morning it was awaiting word from federal officials in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security to finalize reunification details for the youngest separated children.
Bethany continues to provide foster services for older children separated at the border and unaccompanied minors who entered the country without parents. The agency declined to provide specific figures but noted it has 100 “beds” or foster homes for migrant kids.
Bethany has located all of the parents of the separated children it is caring for, Palusky said.
“From the beginning when we saw children forcibly separated we sought out the parents,” he said. “We proactively were calling detention centers. We also set up plans for reunification with the parents.”
Nationwide, dozens of immigrant children under the age of 5 were expected to be released from government custody and reunited with their parents Tuesday, the deadline from a federal judge who also ordered all kids be reunited by July 26.
A government lawyer said Monday at least 54 children under the age of 5 would join their parents by the deadline, only about half the 100 or so children covered by the order. The Trump administration was working on final background checks for another five children.
On Monday, Trump’s administration acknowledged it would not meet the deadline for all the children.
Trump said Tuesday that he has a solution to the missed deadline: “Tell people not to come to our country illegally.” Before departing the White House for Europe, Trump said, “That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.”
Bethany is urging Congress and the administration to find ways to speed up reunifications, identify alternatives to jail for asylum seekers and provide more community-based health services to refugee children.
The process has been complicated by federal case management, Palusky said. The Department of Homeland Security is overseeing detained parents, while Health and Human Services is overseeing the children, and the two “are not always linked.”
“It creates delays and people not being able to have their day in court,” Palusky said.
The agencies also share fingerprinting conducted as part of required background checks, and many migrant parents “see it as a trap” that could be used against them if they do not have legal status, Palusky said. “We’d like to see the end of this immediately to facilitate in family reunification.”
Parents in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody “for the most part” are being taken to locations near their children and the families will be released, Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said in court. She said locations would not be publicly disclosed, but children have been sent to shelters across the country.
More than 2,000 children were separated from their parents by U.S. immigration authorities at the border this spring before Trump reversed course on June 20 amid an international outcry. Last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said there were “under 3,000” separated children in all.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt sought assurances from the government Monday that advocates would be in position to guide parents when they are released in a foreign land. The parents will be free while their cases wind through immigration court, which can take years, and may be required to wear ankle monitors.
On Monday, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to detain immigrant families in long-term facilities, calling it a “cynical attempt to undo a longstanding court settlement.”
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said the government had failed to present new evidence to support revising a court order that limits the detention of children who crossed the border illegally.
Three years ago, Gee rejected a similar effort by the Obama administration and ruled at the time that immigrant children generally can’t be held longer than 20 days.
Devin O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department disagreed with Gee’s Monday ruling and continued to review it.
ICE has three family detention centers with room for about 3,000 people in all, and the places are already at or near capacity. The Trump administration is trying to line up thousands of more beds at military bases.
Associated Press contributed