We asked our friend Matthew Soerens, the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, to share key information that we should know about the recent report on unaccompanied immigrant children and families who are being separated at the border. 

Click here to sign a petition on behalf of asylum seeking families forcibly separated at the border. 

What’s Happening?

Over the weekend, we have seen multiple headlines around migrant children being lost, and in some cases, handed over to traffickers, by the US Government. While some of the facts shared are technically true, there are a number of complexities and nuances that must be considered to understand the full picture of what’s happening, and exactly what it is we should be advocating for.

In response to horrific violence largely fueled by the growing dominances of gangs with origins in the US, the number of individuals fleeing from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and seeking safety in other countries—including but not limited to the US—has increased dramatically in the past several years. `

Some of these individuals have been children or teenagers who have made the dangerous journey without a parent. They are referred to as “unaccompanied minors”. Others are mothers or fathers accompanied by their children, fleeing together as a family. While some individuals from these countries may be driven by economic factors that would not qualify them for asylum, many others intend to apply for asylum in the United States due to legitimate fears.

US laws allow for those with a credible fear of persecution to request asylum whether they enter the US on a temporary visa, report to a port of entry along the border, or are apprehended entering the United States without having been inspected. 

The news stories over the past few days have focused particularly on the children apprehended at the border, some of whom are impacted by recent policy changes:

  1. On May 7, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy to criminally charge anyone caught seeking to enter the United States without proper documentation—even in cases when the individual or families are seeking asylum. In every other administration, the Department of Justice has exercised prosecutorial discretion, criminally charging those entering improperly in some cases, but also taking into account the effect of such prosecutions on vulnerable children.  Chief of Staff John Kelly has said this new policy of separating children is designed to serve as a deterrent from those who would consider coming to the US. 

Since children cannot be criminally charged when their parents are, this policy inherently means that children—even very small children—are being taken from their parents. According to recent testimony from an official with US Customs and Border Protection, during just the first two weeks of this new policy, 638 parents were prosecuted, affecting 658 children. While children and parents have sometimes been separated under past administrations, this new policy is dramatically increasing these instances. 

These children, who arrived with one or both parents, are then classified as “unaccompanied” once their parents are charged and detained. They are then processed in the same way as a child who arrives at the border without any parent. Under the terms of a law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, unaccompanied children are turned over from Customs and Border Protection (part of the US Department of Homeland Security) to the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which Congress presumed would be better equipped to protect and care for the children than an agency focused on law enforcement. In most cases, HHS provides housing and protection for these children on an interim basis, then releases them into the care of a “sponsor”. The sponsor is usually a family member (often a parent already in the US, with or without legal status), who is supposed to be required to pass a background check before the child is turned over to their care. 

From there, the child lives with the sponsor until summoned to an immigration court hearing. At this step, they will either be granted permission to stay in the US (such as by being granted asylum status or a status for “special immigrant juveniles”) or could be ordered deported. Children have the right to an attorney, but it is not provided by the government. Those who are unrepresented are usually ordered deported, while those with a lawyer (such as provided by Kids in Need of Defense) are normally allowed to stay lawfully.   

  1. The related story receiving significant attention relates to some of these unaccompanied minors for whom the federal government cannot account. In 2016, there were reports that the Department of Health and Human Services placed several Guatemalan unaccompanied minors with “sponsors” who had not been adequately vetted and who turned out to be human traffickers. These young people were forced to work in slave-like conditions on an egg farm in Ohio. In response, the Department of Health and Human Services pledged to follow up on individual cases after their placement in order to ensure more clear communication with the Department of Homeland Security.

At a US Senate hearing in April 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that, from October to December 2017, the agency had sought to follow up with 7,635 children and their sponsors. 6,075 children remained with their sponsor, 52 had relocated to another home, five had been removed (deported) from the U.S., and 28 had run away. The location of 1,475 of these children could not be confirmed, but this does not necessarily mean they are at risk. It is likely and, in the current environment, understandable that some of these “sponsors” (who in some cases could be relatives who are unlawfully present in the US) may not want to answer a telephone call from the federal government. It does, however, demonstrate the need for more careful oversight. 

Furthermore, the new “zero tolerance” policy, which is leading to children being separated from their parents and classified as “unaccompanied,” will likely mean a significant increase in the number of children being transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services and in need of a sponsor. This increases the possibility for unintentional trauma for children who are already fleeing violence or the threat of violence in their home countries.

  1. Lastly, this situation is exacerbated by the decline of lawful possibilities for those who fear violence to seek safety in the US.  Ideally, when a child or family face a genuine fear of persecution, they ought to be able to seek safety without making a dangerous and often unlawful trip across Mexico to request asylum in the US. In recent years, the U.S. State Department has sought to address this problem by allowing a limited number of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan individuals to be resettled to the US as refugees through the US Refugee Resettlement Program. A separate “parole” program allowed certain children from these countries to be legally reunited on an expedited basis to parents already residing lawfully in the US.

However, under the Trump Administration, the US Refugee Resettlement Program has dramatically reduced the admission of refugees to the US from almost all countries. In 2018, the U.S. is on track to receive only about 22% as many individual as in 2016. Arrivals from almost all countries of origin, including those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are down significantly. And the Central American Migrant parole program has been terminated altogether. 

With far less hope of a safe, legal option to seek refuge, more desperate families facing threats of violence feel there is no choice but to seek to arrive unlawfully—only to be separated from their family if they make it. 

What Can You Do?

  • Inform: Many Americans are simply unaware of how recent policy changes are affecting people. If they were, many would be deeply troubled. Share this fact sheet and articles about what is happening via social media.
  • Advocate: Call or write to your US Representative and your two US Senators. Ask them to do everything within their power to speak out against the “zero tolerance” policy that is leading to family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and to resume a robust U.S. refugee resettlement program.
  • Give: Provide financial support to organizations that are directly addressing these situations. You can give to those providing legal assistance to children and families at the border (such as Kids in Need of Defense), to organizations serving refugees and engaging in advocacy for immigrants in search of refuge (such as World Relief), and to those addressing the root causes of violence in Central America, such as ENLACE in El Salvador and Guatemala or the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. 
  • Pray: Ask God to intervene to protect children, to keep families together, to reunite those that have been separated, and to restore peace to parts of the world devastated by violence.

To learn more about immigration and refugees, pick up Welcoming the Stranger, co-written by Matthew and Jenny Yang. 

For a sharable image of the information found in this article, here is an immigration infographic.  

Click here to sign a petition on behalf of asylum seeking families forcibly separated at the border. 

Matthew Soerens serves as the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, which is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. In that role, he helps evangelical churches to understand the realities of refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values.  He is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Moody Publishers, 2016). 

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