This April, the Trump Administration announced its “zero-tolerance policy” for immigration. It requires every person caught crossing the United State’s southern border be prosecuted in federal criminal court. Since it is against U.S. law for a child to be housed with a parent in a federal prison, children are being separated from the parents who brought them across the border.
The policy brought bipartisan condemnation and public outrage. Wednesday afternoon, Trump reversed course and signed an executive order halting the separation of families at the border. But more than 2,300 children have already been separated from their families since the policy first took effect.
Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services has been providing transitional foster care for immigrant children since 2013. Dona Abbott is the branch director of Bethany Christian Services' refugee and immigrant program. She sat down with Stateside to explain what happens to migrant children after separation and the impact it has.
The children remain in the immigration detention centers for a maximum of three days. The children are then taken into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then looks to place them with a family member or in a foster home.
Since 2013, Bethany has provided care for unaccompanied children who were separated from their family at either the point of flight or somewhere along the journey and cross the border alone. Occasionally, children were separated from their family members at the border.
Now, Abbott said the majority of children in Bethany’s care are children separated from a parent upon entering the U.S.
The organization has 99 foster home beds across the country. Abbott said these beds are almost entirely occupied, and ninety percent of them are filled by children who were separated by parents at the border.
Abbott said the program was designed to care for older children coming to the country without their parents. But the family separations caused by the “zero-tolerance policy” has meant a much higher number of children and a significant shortage of foster homes.
“We are trying to respond as quickly as we can but recruiting, training, licensing foster homes takes time,” Abbott explained.
The process of reuniting children with their parents often depends on how much planning the family did prior to separation and how much information the children have with them. Abbott said the moment of separation is also crucial to this.
“We have one little boy in care who says, 'my dad was handcuffed and put in a police car,' so he is trying to understand that,” Abbott said. “'What happened to my dad? Wheres, my daddy? Where did they take him?' If they even give him a brief explanation, it wasn’t enough to stay with him.”
Sometimes children come with their parents' contact information, and other times all they know is the state they crossed the border in. One younger boy arrived in foster care with his dad's belt in his hand. Written in the belt was a name and phone number for the child's family.
“There shouldn’t be separation at all,” Abbott said. "We shouldn’t have to be making a plan to separate children from parents who’ve managed to keep them safe in the country that they fled from to their very dangerous journey to their presentation at the border. We should be talking about every thing we can do to keep children and parents together.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.