Children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border are showing up in shelters in Oregon and Washington, according to attorneys representing the minors.
“Some of the separated kids have been transferred up to facilities in both states,” said Janet Gwilym, managing attorney of the Seattle office of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
“Washington had about nine kids that I’m aware of in facilities,” she said.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a zero-tolerance immigration policy. The policy calls for anyone entering the United States illegally to be criminally prosecuted. Some parents and children crossing the border together have also been separated from one another.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an order that calls for detaining parents and children together. But since early May, more than 2,300 kids have been separated from their parents, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is not a story that is just taking place along the border,” said LeSage. “Stuff at the border grabbed attention, but this is an ongoing issue … That narrative doesn’t stop if President Trump decides to sign some new policy.”
The children in the Northwest are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The agency has contracts with facilities across the country to house unaccompanied minors, including those separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s border policy.
Gwilym said she’s personally met with all the children in Washington. KIND provides representation for unaccompanied immigrant kids in immigration applications and removal proceedings.
All the kids in Washington are from Central America and they’re between 12 and 17 years old, she said. Six of the nine kids are being housed together, Gwilym said. All are in short-term shelter care in King and Pierce Counties, where they also go to school.
“What we have in Washington state, it’s not the massive facilities like they’re putting in the border,” Gwilym said. “These are all kids that have come from those places.”
Gwilym said the kids have experienced extreme poverty and violence.
“They’re truly refugees,” she said.
LeSage added that family separations often happen away from the border as well.
“These are things that are happening every day when ICE knocks on the door or does a workplace raid and families are instantly separated,” LeSage said. “If there’s a single parent taking care of a kid, suddenly you have a problem.”
Some of the kids in Washington shelters have parents who have been deported, Gwilym said, others are worried because their parents remain detained and the kids haven’t been able to communicate with them.
Gwilym said most of the kids speak Spanish, but many of their parents speak indigenous languages.
“That makes the kids really worried about who is communicating for my parent and what’s going to happen to them,” she said.
Most of the kids now know where their parents are, she said, but none are in Washington.
Initially, children are taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. From there, they’re supposed to get transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Most of the time that agency is able to find a sponsor to release the child to, Gwilym said.
In cases involving unaccompanied minors, more than 90 percent get released to a sponsor, she said. Sponsors are usually family or friends and must go through extensive background checks.
“There’s a smaller portion of the kids who don’t have anyone to be released to or the sponsor doesn’t pass the checks or doesn’t turn in the paperwork; there’s a lot of reasons that could be the case,” she said. “In that case, those kids stay in ORR custody until either they have immigration relief or they turn 18.”
They risk being transferred to adult detention on their 18th birthday. But Gwilym said her office works to prevent that from happening.