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Minnesota expects more migrant children separated from parents

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Alison Griffith, staff attorney of the Advocates for Human Rights.
Alison Griffith, staff attorney of the Advocates for Human Rights. Griffith is currently representing two children in Minnesota who were separated from their parents at the southern border.
Courtesy of Alison Griffith

At least two migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. Mexico border are currently living in Minnesota and officials said this week they expect more arrivals. 

The children, an 8-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, are both from Guatemala and came to Minnesota months ago after they were held in temporary federal custody.

The girl was separated from her father last fall and the boy was separated in 2016. 

Officials declined to identify the children or say where they are living in the state because of privacy concerns. 

The 8-year-old has been living with her family in Minnesota and regularly talks with her family in Guatemala, said Alison Griffith, staff attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights, who is representing both children. 

"She was looking forward to coming with her dad to be safe in the U.S. but once her dad was deported, she was just so traumatized by the experience of being separated that she just wanted to go home," Griffith added.

Both children were separated before the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" on illegal border crossings. That policy resulted in more than 2,000 children separated from their families in recent weeks and placed them in government-contracted shelters while the adults are detained.

Against a national backlash, Trump issued an executive order June 20 rescinding the separation policy at the border but there continues to be confusion over how and when children and their parents will be reunited.

 'Lawlessness at the border will continue' 

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said a judge's order to reunite families separated at the border "makes it even more imperative" that Congress pass legislation that would enable it "to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together."

Otherwise, the administration says, "lawlessness at the border will continue."

The administration was responding to a federal judge's order Tuesday that U.S. border authorities must reunite separated families within 30 days. If the children are younger than 5, they must be reunited with families within 14 days of the order.

The children are far from the first migrant children to arrive in the state. More than 300 children who came to the country alone or were separated from their parents detained at the border were referred to their family members and guardians in Minnesota last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

 Where the children go

The minors referred to as "Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) by the government are those under the age of 18 who entered the country unauthorized and crossed the border themselves.

In the wake of the "zero tolerance policy," children whose parents or family members are prosecuted and not available for care are also classified as unaccompanied and go through the same process. 

The children then would temporarily stay in a licensed facility under the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) until the agency finds sponsors who can provide for the children. 

There are no ORR licensed facilities to house them in Minnesota.

Separated children stay in federal custody longer than those unauthorized children who enter the border by themselves, said Margaret Martin, legal program director for Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. 

"For most children, (a sponsor) is a parent, one or both parents, or another relative," said Martin. "The children who are separated from their parents don't have parents who they can be released to." 

Another concern has been arising regarding a recent agreement that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement signed in April. The agreement allows ICE to use the data collected on sponsors by the ORR for enforcement purposes. 

"If they are undocumented or have otherwise a non-permanent immigration status, they may be very concerned about coming forward to offer a home to that child," Griffith said.

'It's not new'

The total number of unaccompanied minors placed in Minnesota increased by 30 percent from the 2015 fiscal year to the 2017 fiscal year. As of April 2018, 164 unaccompanied children had been released to care providers in the state since October 2017. 

Executive Director Jane Graupman of the International Institute of Minnesota said that the organization helped about 20 unaccompanied minors in Minnesota last year. It is the only contracted agency in Minnesota that runs a program funded by the federal government for unaccompanied minors with special needs.

Most of the children referred to the agency have medical conditions, are victims of human trafficking or experienced domestic violence before the arrival in the U.S., Graupman said. 

Refugee Service Director Micaela Schuneman said the case of the 8-year-old Guatemalan girl was the first time that the institute has assisted a child separated from parents at the border. 

The agency is expecting more children to arrive at its door.  

"I would assume that we will see some of those cases, just because numerically it would make sense that some of them would end up in Minnesota," she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2,342 children were separated from their parents along the border between May 5 and June 9. 

"This entire crisis, just to be clear, is not new," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has said. "But currently, it is the exclusive product of loopholes in our federal immigration laws that prevent illegal immigrant minors and family members from being detained and removed to their home countries."

Griffith also said the separation policy is not new.

"We have clients who were separated from their parents in 2016 and 2017," she said. "Part of what has caught attention is that the administration previously tried to say that there was some goal in protecting the children involved in the separation. The administration more recently has come out openly saying this is a deterrent policy."