A new report from ProPublica Illinois sheds a harsh light on the conditions faced by migrant youth being held in federal custody and living in a horrific limbo as they wait to be released to a sponsor within the United States.
The stories are damning, all the more so for just how common they have become. Here are just a few that ProPublica Illinois obtained as part of a cache of confidential records from nine federally funded shelters run by the non-profit Heartland Human Care Services:
One 16-year-old from Guatemala said he wanted to “quitarme la vida,” or “take my life away,” as he waited to be released from a Chicago shelter for immigrant children. He was kept there for at least 584 days.
A 17-year-old from Guinea went on a hunger strike, telling staff members he refused to eat until he saw evidence they were trying to find him a home. He was released nearly nine months after he entered a shelter.
And a 10-month-old boy, forcibly separated from his father at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, was bitten repeatedly by an older child and later hospitalized after falling from a highchair. He was detained for five months.
As of May 2018, more than 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children were in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and held in more than 100 sites across the country, many of which are shelters like the ones run by Heartland. Employees of some shelters have been accused of sexually abusing the minors under their care, and chronic staffing shortages often put the children and teens at risk for abuse.
The prison-like conditions detailed in the ProPublica Illinois report are a grim reminder of the reality faced by thousands of children and teenagers, many of whom came to the U.S. fleeing rape, gang violence, and other abuse, only to be incarcerated upon their arrival:
The documents reveal the routines of life inside the shelters, days punctuated by tedium and fear as children wait and wait and wait to leave. They spend their days taking English lessons and learning about such peculiarities as American slang, St. Patrick’s Day, the NFL and the red carpet fashions at the Academy Awards. They complain about the food and mistreatment by staff. And they cry and write letters and hurt themselves in despair.
In what they say and write, and in what is said and written about them, one truth becomes abundantly clear: The longer children are detained, the more they struggle.
Records reveal a regimented existence inside the shelters, with employees controlling nearly every minute of a child’s day. Though children attend class and play games and sports outside, they must walk in single-file lines and, for the most part, can’t move about buildings without permission.
And troublingly, the amount of time unaccompanied migrant youth are spending in detention is getting longer. In 2017, the average length of time spent in a shelter was 34 days—today, it’s now almost two months, according to ProPublica Illinois. And while that’s the average, some are held for much longer:
[S]ome children have spent hundreds of days waiting to leave. In Chicago alone, 27 children who were in Heartland’s care during the month of July — including several from India, Guatemala and Nepal — had been held for 200 days or more, records show. A 17-year-old from Honduras had been in custody the longest: 598 days.
“It’s traumatic to have this indefinite detention,” said Emily Ruehs-Navarro, an assistant professor of sociology at Elmhurst College near Chicago who has studied shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children. “It’s a vicious cycle where the longer kids stay, the more trauma is compounded on their situation.”
Meanwhile, for older teens in ORR shelters, their 18th birthdays turn from occasions for celebration to a day they dread, as teens who turn 18 can be immediately picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and taken to adult detention facilities.
You can read the full report from ProPublica Illinois here.