PORTLAND, Ore. – “Months have passed, and with each passing day I think less likely the dream that any mother in my shoes would wait for: the time or the day that her son finally gets home.”
That’s the plea a mother of an undocumented Mexican teenager wrote in February 2018, five months after she learned her son crossed the border to find her.
Federal agents caught the boy in August 2017 and transferred him to a high-security facility in Portland, Oregon. According to court documents, the boy was held for months despite repeated assurances that he would be quickly reunited with his mother in Florida.
The family’s fraught journey for reunification shows the federal government kept parents and children separated for months longer than necessary, even before the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy took nearly 3,000 kids from their families at the U.S.–Mexico border.
At fault, lawyers say, is the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency in charge of caring for undocumented children across the country.
Court documents detail the hoops families must jump through to meet demanding ORR requirements, and how ORR’s delays can keep families apart even when requirements are met.
ORR oversees thousands of children in shelters
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is a small arm of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It was created in 1980 but received a massive new workload in 2003, after the federal government restructured in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Bush administration created the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency (ICE) to crack down on illegal immigration, and gave ORR the task of caring for undocumented kids who came to the United States alone or were separated from their parents after they crossed the border.
ORR now finds itself at the center of media attention this summer as it tries to reunite thousands of children who were taken en masse from their parents at the border during Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy between April and June 2018.
On July 11, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and three other Democratic senators called for Health and Human Services director Alex Azar to remove the ORR director.
“We have received very little, and at times conflicting, information from the Trump Administration,” the senators wrote. "These inconsistent answers and the continued lack of a clear plan for the care and reunification of separated children show a glaring lack of leadership.”
But reuniting kids with family members is not new for ORR.
ORR has cared for 175,000 children since 2003, according to the agency’s website. It currently has more than 11,800 kids in its care. The budget for ORR’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program this year is $1.3 billion.
Those kids spend about two months, on average, in one of the more than 100 shelters across the country before being reunited with family members, friends, or placed with a foster family.
ORR isn’t supposed to hold kids in these facilities for very long, or put them in more restrictive environments than they need to be. Due to the 1997 Flores court settlement, undocumented kids are supposed to be placed with a family member or family friend “without unnecessary delay.”
The Flores settlement has kept the Trump administration from detaining children with their parents, because it stipulates that children should not be placed in detention centers for longer than 20 days. While the federal government has challenged the settlement in order to keep families together in detention facilities it has not yet succeeded in overturning the 21-year-old ruling.
Court documents filed in April allege that ORR violated the Flores Settlement, keeping kids apart from their families for months or years longer than necessary.
One of those kids was held at a high-security facility in Portland run by the Oregon-based nonprofit Morrison Child and Family Services. The sworn testimony from the child and his mother, statements from the child’s court-appointed attorneys and emails from case managers show the family’s reunification was delayed four months after staff at Morrison assured the family they would be reunited, and two months after an immigration judge cleared the boy for release. The delays were due in part to technical issues and delays by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“Such a continuum of trauma would not be inflicted today on any other population,” wrote Lewis Cohen, the attorney who submitted the litigation.
ORR has not responded to requests for comment on this story.
The boy and mother’s names have been redacted from the court documents to protect their identities. The testimony was written in February 2018.
‘A torture day by day’: Mother waits for son’s return
Like many of the more than 1 million immigrants who come to the United States each year, the mother was hoping to provide a better life for her family. She was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and moved to Sebring, Florida in 2005. The court documents do not say whether the mother is a legal resident of the U.S.
According to her testimony, she planned to establish herself in the United States. In 2007 she was diagnosed with cancer, she said, and still receives chemotherapy once a month. She married a man in Florida and has a 4-year-old daughter.
Meanwhile, she maintained contact with her son, who stayed in Oaxaca with his grandparents. The boy worked six days a week at farms, planting and gathering vegetables and spreading pesticides on fields.
Then one day in September 2017 the mother received a voicemail from her son, now 17 years old, who traveled to the U.S. to find her.
“He had not told me where immigration had detained him,” she wrote. “I called many places in the following days trying to find out something about [redacted] and his whereabouts. I got sick and very desperate, because I did not know where he was or how to communicate with him. I called many government offices…Nowhere did they give me any information.”
ORR has a National Call Center they instruct parents to call to find out where their children are. That information is passed on to the child’s shelter. Shelter staff are responsible for responding to the parent, according to ORR’s website.
While his mother searched for more details about the Kansas City shelter, the boy was transferred to a higher-security facility in Portland. That facility is run by Morrison Child and Family Services, which receives federal grant money to care for undocumented kids while ORR works to find homes for the children. Morrison does not set policy for a child’s length of stay.
The facility the boy was in is “staff-secure,” meaning most doors are locked and children can’t move from room to room without permission, including the bathroom. The children’s pockets are checked to make sure they aren’t carrying anything that could be used as a weapon.
The boy was told someone filed a report about him in Kansas City, triggering the transfer to a more restrictive building. He said he did not know why, and he has never been charged with a crime.
The boy testified that he felt “like a prisoner.”
The boy arrived at the Morrison shelter on Sept. 18, 2017 and spent the next five months waiting to be reunited with his mother.
“I started to believe that I was never going to leave,” he wrote.
Months-long fight for reunification
When undocumented kids come to the United States and land in the custody of the federal government, they are thrust into a world of limbo for months or years.
After capture, the children are transferred to ORR’s care. ORR’s job is to place them with a “sponsor” – a parent, family member, family friend or foster parent. Before that happens, the kids are moved to one of ORR’s shelters around the country – sometimes thousands of miles away from their parents.
If family members connect through ORR’s phone system, a parent can apply to be his or her child’s sponsor. That process can include extensive background checks, home visits, medical records and fingerprinting.
Health and Human Services says some kids are not reunited with family.
“Not every adult who comes forward to claim custody of a child is an appropriate sponsor due to a variety of reasons, which may include custodial disputes in the home country or environmental factors unsuitable for children,” the agency says on its website.
While parents wait for their sponsorship application to go through, the kids wait in shelters run by groups such as Morrison Child and Family Services, a nonprofit that receives federal grant money to care for kids.
Some shelters, like the one run by Morrison in downtown Portland, look like makeshift summer camps, with educational activities and games.
Others, like Morrison’s secure facility in Southeast Portland, are for kids who have been labeled as problematic – they may have had behavior issues, or are at risk of human trafficking. Those facilities are locked down to keep kids in and others out.
“ORR makes all the decisions on where the youth is placed,” said Morrison Child and Family Services CEO Drew Henrie-McWilliams.
On September 19, the mother in Florida received a phone message from her son’s case manager at Morrison explaining the boy was in Portland, but she didn’t believe it until she heard her son’s voice.
“When I spoke with him, I felt like my soul had returned to my body,” she wrote. “I had spent nights without sleep, searching and searching for my son without knowing where he was. A torture day by day. I started crying from emotion when I heard his voice.”
She started the sponsor process. The case manager promised her it wouldn’t take longer than 30 days.
“Within a week I had sent him all the documents they asked for. Every paper they requested I sent as quickly as possible,” she said.
Court records show that on October 30 the boy was cleared for release to his mother, pending ORR approval.
“Given the…established relationship and lack of safety concerns, coupled with clear online background/sex offender checks for sponsor and alt. care provider, the program will not be requiring fingerprints,” Morrison staff wrote.
But ORR requested more documents, including medical records proving her cancer diagnosis didn’t make her an unfit mother.
“These seemed very personal, they caused me great sorrow,” she said. “It occurred to me that they were looking for an excuse to deny me my son for being sick.”
ORR asked for all of the addresses she previously lived. For one house, she said, “I did not remember the house number…I had to drive an hour and a half to the house itself to get the house number.”
Then the mother said ORR demanded fingerprints from her and her husband – a request that sometimes halts the reunification process, if parents fear the government will use the information to deport them. She agreed to fingerprinting.
Her son’s case manager told her in December 2017 that she had missed the appointment for fingerprints a month earlier, she said. “He had forgotten to let me know,” she wrote.
Her next scheduled appointment for fingerprints was Feb. 2, 2018.
Morrison’s Drew Henrie-McWilliams said he can’t comment on individual cases, but often this miscommunication stems from ORR failing to inform case managers of appointments until after they passed.
“We get to people information they need as soon as we get it,” he said. “If we are waiting on information to come back from ORR we give it when we get it.”
In December, a woman from ORR visited the mother for a “home study,” asking questions about her immigration status and how she came to the U.S., and warning her of what could happen once her son came to live in her home, the mother said.
“She told me that if they give my son to me and he does not show up for his court dates, immigration can arrest everyone in the house,” she wrote in her testimony.
But the mother was hopeful, because the woman from ORR told her the boy would be released before the New Year.
“I got so excited, I even bought some Christmas presents for my son. I have them, still wrapped with Christmas paper,” she wrote in February.
While the mother was rushing to fulfill every ORR requirement to get her son back, the boy was in Morrison’s staff-secure facility, wondering if he was ever going to see his mother again.
“I requested a hearing with the judge to understand the reason why I am being detained,” he wrote.
On December 19, an immigration judge ruled the boy could be released.
“Not a danger to the community, bond granted subject to HHS/ORR identifying, evaluating and approving an appropriate sponsor,” the judge wrote.
The boy’s lawyers told him ORR still had to approve his mother as a sponsor.
“I started to believe that I was never going to leave,” he wrote. “All I want at this time is to be reunited with my mother in Florida.”
Technical difficulties from ORR caused some of the delays, emails show. Morrison staff wrote to the boy’s lawyer and said ORR waited nearly a month to look at the boy’s release request, and then another month and a half to process it.
“Please keep in mind that ORR is now getting back from VACA mode and will resume its normal operations,” Morrison staff wrote on Jan. 9, 2018. “Furthermore, this minor was initially submitted for release on 10/30/17, however, due to some technical issues, ORR was not able to look at this case until 11/21/17…furthermore, we have been experiencing technical issues with the [Unaccompanied Alien Children program] portal for the past couple of weeks, which as (sic) prevented us from creating the transfer online.”
Morrison CEO Drew Henrie-McWilliams confirmed delays like this can keep families separated when they otherwise could have been reunited.
“There are times with high volume that delays occur that are frustrating us and the youth as well and family,” he said.
The boy wrote his testimony on February 2 and his mother wrote her testimony on February 6.
“Months have passed and with each passing day I think less likely the dream that any mother in my shoes would wait for: the time or the day that her son finally gets home,” the mother wrote. “If you are delaying release until he reaches the adulthood so he can be deported, why won’t they just say this at once? I want them to at least allow me to see him one day, if only for a while, so that it’s worth it for a family to suffer…what mother would not want to have her son in her arms, if only for a moment?”
The family was reunited in early February, after the court documents were filed, attorney Lewis Cohen said. Cohen was unable to provide any more information about the boy or his mother.