Do you remember the thousands of migrant children detained at the border? It is easy to get distracted these days by crisis after crisis in the federal government and forget about important issues. When I found myself wondering recently whether there are still children and adolescents being detained, I realized I didn’t know whether or how this had all ended or been dragged on. Then I read yesterday’s NY Times.
Caitlin Dickerson reports: “In shelters from Kansas to New York, hundreds of migrant children have been roused in the middle of the night in recent weeks and loaded onto buses with backpacks and snacks for a cross-country journey to their new home: a barren tent city on a sprawling patch of desert in West Texas. Until now, most undocumented children being held by federal immigration authorities had been housed in private foster homes or shelters, sleeping two or three to a room. They received formal schooling and regular visits with legal representatives assigned to their immigration cases. But in the rows of sand-colored tents in Tornillo, Tex., children in groups of 20, separated by gender, sleep lined up in bunks. There is no school: The children are given workbooks that they have no obligation to complete. Access to legal services is limited. These midnight voyages are playing out across the country, as the federal government struggles to find room for more than 13,000 detained migrant children—the largest population ever—whose numbers have increased more than fivefold since last year.”
The children being moved to the tent city in Texas are not toddlers or pre-schoolers: “Most of the detained children crossed the border alone, without their parents. Some crossed illegally; others are seeing asylum. Children who are deemed ‘unaccompanied minors,’ either because they were separated from their parents or crossed the border alone, are held in federal custody until they can be matched with sponsors, usually relatives or family friends, who agree to house them while their immigration cases play out in the courts.”
Dickerson adds that the rapid growth in the number of young people in custody—fivefold since last year—may seem surprising because the number of children crossing the border has not significantly increased. So, what is causing overcrowding in detention facilities and causing the federal government to move children to tent cities?
It turns out the problem is the Trump administration’s punitive crackdown this year on illegal immigration. The Center for American Progress’s Leila Schochet and Tom Jawetz provide some details: “Facilitating the safe and timely release of immigrant children from government custody has historically been a key priority of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). A child in ORR custody can be placed into the care of an adult sponsor in the United States—a parent, family member, or other trusted adult that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deems capable of providing for the child’s physical and mental well-being. Previously, HHS would vet potential sponsors with the child’s best interest in mind and would not consider a sponsor’s immigration status when determining whether or not they were fit to care for the child.” But in April, the Trump administration changed the rules, demanding that, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)… vet adult sponsors and other adults living in a sponsor’s household by taking their fingerprints and providing Health and Human Services their immigration status, name, date of birth, and other personal history.”
The NY Times‘ Dickerson adds that ICE reports it has, “arrested dozens of people who applied to sponsor unaccompanied minors.” ICE confirms that 70 percent of those arrested had no previous arrest or criminal history.
The Trump administration is now warehousing in tents a growing population of young people because it has frightened family members and other responsible adults related to the children into hiding rather than encouraging them to come forward as potential sponsors.
The NY Times Editorial Board followed up the reporters’ news story: “(T)he crisis that has led federal immigration authorities to pull nearly 2,000 unaccompanied children (so far) out of shelters around the country in the dead of night and bus them to a ‘tent city’ in the desert town of Tornillo, Tex., is almost entirely of the American government’s own making… Immigrant advocates argue that the true purpose of the new sponsor requirements is to find, arrest and deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. Given that dozens of these immigrants have already been arrested, and given that the vast majority of them have committed no other crimes, it’s not hard to agree. Meanwhile, thousands of children languish.”
The NY Times‘ Dickerson adds that avoiding licensed and well-regulated child care and educational services may be another motivation for the federal government to move young people to the Texas tent city: “The roughly 100 shelters that have, until now, been the main location for housing detained migrant children are licensed and monitored by state child welfare authorities, who impose requirements on safety and education as well as staff hiring and training. The tent city in Tornillo, on the other hand, is unregulated, except for guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services. For example, schooling is not required here, as it is in regular migrant children shelters.”
The denial of schooling for the young people in the Tornillo tent city, however, remains a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The 1982, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe established 14th Amendment protection of the right to primary and secondary education for undocumented migrant children. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan renounced those who had advocated against the protection of the rights of undocumented children, declaring: “It is difficult to understand precisely what the state hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a sub-class of illiterates.”