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Nineteen immigrant children separated from their families at the U.S. southern border in recent months have been placed in Michigan by the federal government. 

Immigration advocates say they expect the state to get more unaccompanied children, who were with their parents seeking asylum before the adults were turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border under a Trump administration policy implemented last year.

The migrant children, who started coming to Michigan in October, range from 4-17 years old. Ten minors arrived in January and two children were processed through the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center screening Wednesday. Afterward, the children are placed with Samaritas or Bethany Christian Services until a sponsor family can be identified to temporarily or permanently house them.

Under the Migrant Protection Protocol, often known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, parents must wait in Mexico encampments instead of U.S. detention centers for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The policy, which dates to January 2019, doesn't apply to children.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which legally represents the children, strives for family reunification.

"... But in some cases, if we're even able to reach parents, they say, 'No, don't send my child back, let them move through the process alone,' " said Susan Reed, managing attorney for the center. "People's backs are against the wall here and they may not choose to reunite with their child because they want the best for them."

Reed said the Migrant Protection Protocol's impact on children is the same or worse as the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which preceded it. 

"These MPP separations are de facto separations — the government isn't forcibly separating families, but they're intentionally creating conditions that lead directly to separation," Reed told The Detroit News. "It's the newest iteration of 'zero tolerance' policies ... and once again, we're seeing young children who are unable to articulate their legal claims — or even the most basic information about their lives and identities — without the help of their parents."

Chris Palusky, Bethany's President and CEO, said the policy might seem like a simple solution, but families seeking asylum are not safe in Mexico.

"I visited the border earlier this year and even then, the situation felt dire," Palusky said in December. "I met mothers and children who were living in a makeshift camp. I saw sick children cough as they sat hungry in worn tents. All of this was happening within a stones-throw from California where countless churches, nonprofits, and individuals were equipped and ready to help them."

Finding parents for reunification

In January, Reed sent a letter to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship applauding lawmakers for investigating the policy, saying, "The hardship and vulnerabilities MPP creates for children are more difficult to address than the family separation policy." 

"In this new MPP scenario, we have no consistent way of finding or speaking with parents to get critical information about young children's circumstances or coordinate advocacy on their asylum cases to ensure a consistent outcome for the family," Reed wrote to the committee.

Too often, advocates are unable to track down what happened to the child's parents. At least three of the 19 minors' parents have since been kidnapped or have disappeared, Reed said.

"A young child we serve was kidnapped with his father after being sent back to Mexico," she said, citing the child and his mother. "After being turned away from the port of entry, they took a taxi to a migrant shelter. The taxi was stopped en route, father and son were abruptly pulled out and forcibly taken to a house where others were being held ..."

Reed said the family couldn't gather the full ransom the abductors demanded, so the kidnappers only released the child.

"Not knowing where to go, he returned to the port of entry and was taken into CBP custody as an unaccompanied minor," Reed said. 

"Other children we interview report separating from a parent and crossing alone due to threats their families received in Mexico and lack of proper medical attention and access to food at border encampments," she said. "Exposing children and families who are seeking asylum through our legal process to this kind of violence and deprivation is senseless and cruel."

It's not clear what reunification would look like under the policy, said Rebekah Ostosh, a legal assistant with center aiding children.

"It's very complicated," she said. "Even the 4-year-old has a sense of being separated, and the most troubling are those who haven't heard from their parents and are concerned for their safety," said Ostosh, adding it has been burdensome with the government's lack of tracking.

"Extra administration is needed to juggle our screenings and identify changes. One kid, a 7-year-old, came to our custody but missed her court date while she was at the border with her family. We weren't initially notified and now she has orders of removal. We're in the process of reopening her case now."

The children live in foster care or small group home settings while in Michigan. Federal law requires children in immigration custody to live in the "least restrictive setting possible." Immigration advocates support releasing the child to a family in the U.S., but permanency is never a goal unless reunification efforts have been exhausted and release is not an option.

In cases with children who had been harmed or trafficked by family or a child without living or known parents, they are placed in long-term foster care. Children in temporary federal programs are being actively prosecuted by the government for deportation and have two cases going on at once, Reed said.

"One that started with their families at the border and a new one here," she said. "It's a procedural nightmare and it's very confusing and frightening for children and difficult for foster parents and other advocates to understand and be responsive to."

An 80% decrease

Last year, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the protocol was implemented to "address the urgent humanitarian and security crisis at the Southern border."

"This humanitarian approach will help to end the exploitation of our generous immigration laws," she said last year in a statement. "The Migrant Protection Protocols represent a methodical commonsense approach, exercising long-standing statutory authority to help address the crisis at our southern border."

Historically, foreign nationals traveling to the United States were predominantly single adult men from Mexico who were generally removed within 48 hours if they had no legal right to stay.

Now, more than 60% are family units and unaccompanied children and 60% are non-Mexican, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In fiscal year 2017, Border Patrol agents arrested 94,285 family units from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at the southern border.

At its peak in May, more than 4,800 people were crossing the border daily; CBP officials calculated about three apprehensions per minute. After the Migrant Protection Protocol was implemented in January 2019, DHS returned 55,000 people to Mexico by October.

DHS officials praised policy in their annual report, saying border encounters with Central American families have seen a "rapid and substantial decline in apprehensions," which decreased by approximately 80%.

During the zero-tolerance policy in effect in 2017-18, about 60 separated migrant children, some as young as 4 months old, were placed in Michigan with agencies like Bethany Christian Services and were screened through the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. Most of the children were reunited with their families by Oct. 23, 2018, after ACLU national's Ms. L v. ICE litigation.

Currently, it's difficult for the center to track down families for reunification and in many cases, parents don't want to be reunified outside the U.S.

Parents returned to Mexico are awaiting various stages of their immigration proceedings: some are waiting for their first hearing, others, their individual hearings and still others have received orders of removal from an immigration judge and are pursuing an appeal.

Some immigrants have documented their fear of returning to Mexico and are awaiting proceedings in the United States. Others have withdrawn their claims and elected to voluntarily return to their home countries, Homeland Security said.

However, Reed said many parents were coerced into voluntary removal and were told that by doing so, they'd be reunited with their child when in fact, the parent was deported alone.

"We're not sure what the patterns are going to look like inMPP. We could see more potential separations because if you're already here, why return to the start of your journey?" Reed said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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