At least 99 immigrant children separated from their families and sent to detention facilities in Chicago are dealing with the long-term consequences of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, according to a recent investigative report by ProPublica.
The report, which cites a number of confidential records from Illinois shelters run by the federally contracted Heartland Human Care Services, details how dozens of children were brought to the shelters after being forcibly removed from their families at the border. The children agonized for weeks over their missing parents, suffering emotional crises and in some cases threatening to harm themselves or others as a result.
“I want to die here,” an 11-year old boy from Guatemala told staff members, according to the records.
Another child, a 12-year-old girl from Romania, reported she felt “as though she would die without her dad.”
The nonprofit Heartland Human Care Services, which runs nine different facilities in the Chicago area, has claimed the children have suffered “incalculable harm” as a result of the president’s zero-tolerance policy. Earlier this summer, amid heavy backlash from human rights groups, President Trump rescinded the specific family separation practice through an executive order — months after the administration implemented it in May. But the damage in many cases had already been done.
Now, months after a court ordered the reunification of all separated families, 7 children at the Illinois-based facilities have yet to be reunited.
One of those children, a 12-year-old boy named Erick, has been in immigration custody for four months. According to the records, he became so depressed that he was ultimately admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a week and diagnosed with adjustment disorder. He’s been placed on three different medications since first arriving to the shelter to help with depression and outbursts of aggression.
“The damage inflicted was not something that went away because of the reunification,” said Jesse Bless, an immigration lawyer who, with the help of a coalition of lawyers, filed a lawsuit asking that the government pay for mental health treatment for children separated from their parents. “We are starting to see signs that there could be long-term effects.”
These harsh psychological effects are only made worse by the length of detention, which, in the case of some children, was more than a year.
While the majority of separations took place during the administration’s immigration crackdown from April until June of 2018, some Heartland records show that family separations were occurring long before the policy was implemented.
One child, a 13-year-old boy from Brazil, was separated from his father while crossing the border in June 2017. The father was sent to a detention center in El Paso, Texas while his son was sent to a Heartland facility in Chicago, where he remained for over 400 days.
Another child, an 11-year-old girl named Destinee from Guatemala, arrived at a Heartland shelter in late May and was detained for five weeks until she was released to family members in south Florida. Her mother remains at a detention center in Texas.
Destinee describes her loneliness during those five weeks in a recent letter to her mother.
“I cried during the nights in the shelter,” she wrote in Spanish. “I spent all night crying, asking God for us to be together again.”
These stories of long-term detention and what it does to young, immigrant children, comes just as the Trump administration is moving to remove court-imposed time limits on the detention of migrant children. In removing the time limit, currently set at 20 days, the administration would be allowed to imprison children and adults, many of whom do not have a criminal record and are seeking asylum, for as long as months or even years.
Currently around 400 families remain separated by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Many of those parents were deported after they claim immigration officials tricked them into waiving their rights to reunification, splitting them up from their children indefinitely.