Families and sponsors of immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border are being forced to pay thousands of dollars to get them released from government-contracted detention centers, The New York Times reported Sunday.
According to several sponsors, many of whom are close relatives of the children, the amount of red tape and financial hurdles before families presents a cruel challenge to those unable to afford the fees required to bring home their kids.
“The government is creating impossible barriers and penalizing poverty,” Neha Desai, director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, California, told the Times.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently holding more than 2,000 children forcibly separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which refers anyone detained at the border for prosecution. President Trump signed an executive order last month supposedly rolling back the child separation practice he created — seeking to replace it instead with indefinite family detention — and a judge ordered DHS to reunite families within 30 days. But so far, nothing has been done to accommodate that demand.
Now, families and potential sponsors who are waiting to be united with the children are being asked to dig deep into their pockets to shell out money for thousands of dollars in plane-tickets and transportation fees incurred by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, which handles the children’s care. Many say they’ve had to scramble to borrow from friends and relatives to cover the charges.
“It caught me by surprise when they demanded all that money,” Marlon Parada, a construction worker based in Los Angeles, told the Times, recalling the $1,800 fee he was asked to pay to fly his Honduran cousin’s 14-year-old daughter to Los Angeles from Houston, Texas (the fee also covered the cost of an in-flight travel escort). The child had recently been separated from her mother at the border and sent to a juvenile immigration prison in Houston.
Parada, a father of three who makes $3,000 a month, said that he requested officials use a different form of transportation to save money, but was rejected. “I asked them to just put her on a bus, but they wouldn’t,” he said.
In the end, he paid the full $1,800 to get the child released. “They notified me a day before her release. I had no choice,” he said.
Like Parada, others family sponsors say the excessive funds required to release children from immigrant detention centers has forced them to look elsewhere to scrape together enough money.
Oscar Garcia, also a father of three who remodels homes in Anaheim, California, told the Times he was asked to pay $1,400 to cover travel costs for his 11-year-old nephew, who was being held in a Texas detention center after crossing the border from El Salvador. Garcia said that he drained his savings and borrowed $900 from another relative to pay the fees.
“When everything was done, they told me it would cost $1,400 to bring the boy here. I didn’t want to leave him stuck there,” he said.
DHS claims the practice of charging sponsors to cover travel costs for children released from government detention centers is not new and was not implemented by the Trump administration. They argue the Obama administration enforced a similar policy — although the Times notes that it waived fees in 2016, amid an uptick in the number of families crossing the border, reimbursing detention facilities for their expenses.
Relatives and others looking to sponsor children separated from their families are also subject to home visits and other screenings to determine whether they can afford to provide for the child. However, in several cases, the relatives said they were denied sponsor status over insignificant details, leaving them in an even more undesirable position.
Immigration director Desai told the Times that “one potential sponsor was rejected recently because authorities decided she could not afford the child’s medication.” Another potential sponsor, a mother of two children, “was told that her house was not large enough to accommodate a third child.” Another was informed she would have to move “to a better neighborhood” to get approval to become a sponsor.
The aggressive screening tactics and exorbitant travel costs have left family members desperate, considering the environment many minors face inside the detention centers and “tender age” prisons for children under the age of 12.
Reports by the Associated Press, Reveal, and The Texas Tribune last month showed many of the facilities to which immigrant children are being sent have histories of widespread abuse, mismanagement, and other safety violations. Several juvenile facilities for teens with behavioral issues have likewise been accused of administering powerful psychiatric drugs, sexual and physical abuse, and neglect.
According to DHS officials who spoke with NBC News in late June, more than 4,000 minors have been separated from their parents at the border since October 2016. Although DHS claims more than 500 of those minors have been reunited with their families since then, there is no concrete plan in place for the remaining children.