Protestors gather at SeaTac’s Families Belong Together rally. Photo by Alex Garland

Protestors gather at SeaTac’s Families Belong Together rally. Photo by Alex Garland

Future Remains Uncertain for Separated Immigrant Children as the Federal Reunification Deadline Passes

There are still known five youths who remain in federally-funded Seattle-area shelters.

The federal deadline for over 2,500 immigrant youth nationwide to be reunited with their parents has come and gone, but that hasn’t changed the circumstances of five 12-17 year olds who remain in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)-funded facilities in Washington without a clear sense of when they’ll leave.

Seattle Weekly reported earlier this month that seven out of 11 immigrant youth who landed in Washington as a result of the Trump administration’s rescinded family separation policy remained in ORR-funded facilities in the state. (ORR is an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees the unaccompanied immigrant minors program.) The majority of them were housed in a Seattle shelter called Casa de los Amigos that’s run by the local homeless youth nonprofit YouthCare. Some of the children had arrived in Washington during the family separation’s trial period, a few months before U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announced the “zero tolerance” policy on May 7, according to KIND’s managing attorney in Seattle Janet Gwilym.

On July 26, the Trump administration scrambled to meet a court-ordered deadline to reunite separated youth between 5-17 years old with their families or sponsors by the end of the day. Officials stated in a Thursday court filing that 1,820 children were discharged from federal custody, while deeming over 700 parents—some of whom were deported—ineligible to be reunited with their kids, according to the Associated Press.

“As of Friday morning, the administration can confirm that we have reunified all eligible parents in ICE custody with children. The administration continues to comply in good faith with the court’s requests while protecting the safety and well-being of all children in our care,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Seattle Weekly. “Some illegal alien adults are not eligible or available for reunification today, including some adults who are not in ICE custody and are instead in the interior of the U.S. or their home country. The administration will continue to make every effort to reunify eligible adults with their children.”

Yet a day after the federal deadline passed, the future remained uncertain for five youth who still resided in ORR-funded facilities in Washington, according to Gwilym. “A couple of … their parents have been deported,”said Gwilym, while some of the other parents remain in the custody of federal marshals. The “zero tolerance” policy federally prosecuted parents who crossed the border seeking asylum, “so some of those parents were not released to ICE custody yet,” and are currently unable to be reunified with their children.

In the meantime, KIND staff will continue working with the shelter’s case managers to help the kids find sponsors, and are investigating the kids’ eligibility to apply for legal relief including asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile status. Once granted, the status allows children under 21 who have been neglected, abandoned, or abused by their parents to obtain a green card. The kids will remain in ORR-funded facilities with the possibility of moving to longer-term shelters.

Of the six immigrant youth housed at Casa de los Amigos as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy, four have been reunited with their families within the past month. “There remain two young people in our care that have complex cases where we will have to push and wait a bit longer for information on how best to proceed and ensure for reunification,” YouthCare VP and development and communications officer Jody Waits wrote Seattle Weekly in an email Friday afternoon.

Two of the overall immigrant youth housed in Washington were reunited with their parents at undisclosed ICE locations in Southern border states within the past couple of weeks, Gwilym told Seattle Weekly. Once they were reunited with their parents, “they went to other places in the country where they had other family.”

Gwilym was unable to share the locations of the three remaining children who were not housed at Casa de los Amigos, but she noted that some of the five kids were “old cases” from when the Trump administration began piloting the program a few months before the official policy announcement. As far as she knows, only two of the five remaining children in the state were sent to ORR-funded facilities as a result of the family separation policy, while the other three have been held in the shelters for several months.

For the children who were reunited with their parents, a support system consisting of faith organizations and advocacy groups provided shelter to the families, offering them bus tickets to travel to their next destinations where they intend to connect with other relatives. The children’s removal proceedings will also be transferred to their next destination. “So they all still need representation,” Gwilym said. A national network of pro-bono attorneys and non-profit organization staff are currently organizing to “provide representation to the kids and their parents as best can be.” KIND recently received funding to hire additional legal staff to provide representation for children in Houston and New York, where a large amount of reunified families are located.

On the same day of the federal deadline, KIND announced an initiative designed to support the parents who were deported to Central America while their children remained separated from them in the U.S. The program called Central America Family Reunification and Reintegration Initiative seeks to locate deported parents in Central America, and to offer them mental health, social and legal services. It will also facilitate the reunification of children seeking to reconnect with their parents. KIND will work with intergovernmental organizations to provide support to families who have been reunified and deported, but have concerns about their safety in their home countries. Additionally, children will be reintegrated into life in Guatemala and Honduras through the Child Migrant Return and Reintegration Project so the children can “go back safely, and to stabilize, and to receive services to help fix the problem of why they had to leave in the first place,” Gwilym said.

Despite the Trump administration’s claims of successfully reunifying families by the deadline, local nonprofits and politicians responded that federal officials fell short of their promise.

“This is all about accountability for the Trump Administration’s cruelty and incompetence. All families must be reunited. There have been endless delays, and parents have already been deported without knowing how and when they will be reunited with their children,” OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said in a July 26 statement. “Looking forward, we call on the Administration to reunite all of the families they ripped apart, including those families with a member that has been deported. We also urge Congress to reject the Administration’s attempt to undermine federal court settlements banning the indefinite detention of families. Our cruel and inhumane immigration policies have further damaged America’s standing in the world, has traumatized children, and has undermined due process and our national commitment to humanitarian treatment for asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution. This Trump-made disaster must be unwound, and America must recommit itself to a humane immigration policy that lives up to our values as a nation.”

On Friday morning, a federal judge also held a first status conference on Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s multi-state legal challenge against the Trump Administration over its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which the lawsuit alleges was unlawful. Ferguson also found that the June 20 executive order designed to reverse the family separation policy didn’t offer sufficient plans to reunite families. In a statement, Ferguson said, “President Trump’s lawyers are going to have to answer questions from a judge in Seattle about his cruel policy, and what they are doing to reunify families.”

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