Children are children, regardless of their nationality, and our law and our values require us to act in their best interest. We know that children seeking asylum and other immigration protections are incredibly resilient but have experienced trauma and need a supportive environment. Our goal is to provide the best quality legal services we can to help ensure they have the safety and care they need to thrive. When children cannot be placed with their parents in the U.S., we encourage placement in the least restrictive settings possible and safe release to family or other appropriate sponsor as soon as possible
Over the past several years, MIRC has represented every child in Michigan in federal custody in placements like foster care and small group homes. However, there is now a new, larger “Emergency Intake Site” facility for unaccompanied children operating in Michigan. Our staff are visiting this new facility in Albion every weekday to share information with the children about their rights and to perform individual legal screenings. Given the large numbers of children and the short amount of time they may remain at the facility, we will likely not be able to provide significant services beyond that. Yet we are glad that we are able to provide them information about their rights and meet with them about any safety or reunification concerns and proactively address any issues we observe.
Below is more information about the history of this evolving situation.
We are part of a national network of legal advocates for unaccompanied children, and we have spent the past year joining in advocacy against the “Title 42” expulsions that have denied unaccompanied children their legal right to enter the United States to seek asylum or other relief. Children seeking safety and protection, who would otherwise have come to Michigan for short-term or long-term foster care and become our clients, were being turned away. Tragically these children were sometimes held in completely unregulated and secret illegal hotel stays by transportation contractors, and ultimately flown back to their countries of origin without due process. Michigan’s federal custody programs for unaccompanied children through Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas are unique in that they only consist of foster-care and small group home settings, which are most often the “least restrictive setting in the best interest of the child” that the law requires for children who have not yet been or cannot safely be released. MIRC provides legal services to every unaccompanied immigrant child who comes to Michigan in those programs. In late 2017 through mid-2018, some of the children entering those programs had been forcibly separated from their loved ones by the government and wrongfully made “unaccompanied.” The children in that situation who came to Michigan during that time have all been reunited with family and it remains our high priority that children be released to family or other appropriate sponsors as soon as possible.
Recently we spent much time trying to understand how the Biden Administration’s partial end to the Title 42 policy as applied to unaccompanied children would address the large numbers of unaccompanied children at the border and locally. We continue to urge a full end to the ongoing use of Title 42 as a pretext for expelling adults and families seeking asylum. We initially learned from the press but could not confirm with our government contacts that the Starr Commonwealth site in Albion was likely to house unaccompanied children. We had not been asked to have any role in providing legal services to children in the facility and we could not confirm whether we would be allowed access. We were concerned, because last year that facility was closed following the termination of Starr Commonwealth’s management agreement with Sequel Youth and Family Services, a for-profit company whose staff have been criminally charged in the death of a child in Kalamazoo last year. We have since learned that the federal government has leased the Starr facility and that Community Action of South Central Michigan will staff and serve children at the facility through a separate government contract. The services at the Starr Commonwealth facility will eventually be managed by PAE.
We now have attorneys and other members of our unaccompanied children’s legal team on site every weekday to visit with children, provide “know your rights” information, and conduct legal screenings to identify issues.
The questions below and many other questions about children’s freedom and safety will be those we ask the government and the service providers as we move forward. We want to make sure our judgments and our advocacy are well-informed and based on the facts as we find them, not assumptions about good or bad intentions or national politics. If you have insights or thoughts about what else we need to know or find out, please contact our Unaccompanied Children’s’ program managers, attorneys Susan Reed, Ana Raquel Devereaux, and Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Are relevant laws relating to children’s legal needs being complied with at the Emergency Intake Site (EIS)?
Under the Flores settlement, influx sites like this one have some minimum requirements such as ensuring physical safety, providing adequate nutrition, having a clean environment with access to proper hygiene, being housed only with other minors, and having access to family reunification services and phone calls with family. At this time, we believe these minimum legal requirements are being met. However, the Flores settlement does encourage Influx sites to work towards providing more robust and comprehensive services, including mental health services, educational services, case management services, and all other services required by state child care licensing guidelines. It is our hope that the facility will be able to advance towards meeting these goals for care as well and we will continue to monitor the services provided to the children.
- Where are children coming from?
Children are coming primarily from countries in the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) and they have crossed the U.S./Mexico border at which point they were processed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
- How long have they been held elsewhere and in what conditions?
Children report being at CBP facilities anywhere from 2-10 days. Some children are then moved directly to the EIS at Starr Commonwealth. Children report difficult conditions at CBP facilities, including very cold temperatures, bad and repetitive food, and being given little opportunity to sleep.
Some children have spent time at another Emergency Intake Site in another state before coming to Starr Commonwealth. The conditions at those facilities were satisfactory to the children, but they had little information about why they were there or why they were later moved.
- How long are they staying at this Emergency Intake Site?
Starr Commonwealth has been operating as an Emergency Intake Site for ORR for about six weeks. Children are staying at Starr Commonwealth for about 30 days before being released to sponsors or another ORR facility. The length of stay varies slightly by the relationship between the child and their potential sponsor (i.e. children being sponsored by parents were more likely to be released before 30 days).
- What prior entry attempts have they made and were their rights violated?
Some children who are at Starr Commonwealth were subject to Migrant Protection Protocol Proceedings with their families and later entered unaccompanied. We have not yet documented specific violations of their rights in relation to prior entries with the children we have met with.
In November 2020, a Federal Judge ordered that Title 42 could not be used to expel unaccompanied children without due process. We have not learned of any children at the Starr Commonwealth that were subject to Title 42 expulsions prior to their most recent entry.
- Are children being released to sponsors as quickly as possible and who is facilitating their release?
The family reunification process is being facilitated by Office of Refugee Resettlement staff and subcontractor agencies that are providing case management services. Initial case management staffing levels were not at the level to facilitate the quickest release possible, but children were still getting processed for release to their sponsors. Case management staffing will be increasing, so we hope the process will be more expedited in the future given additional resources.
- Is contact with family or other loved ones being facilitated for children in the facility?
Children are being given two opportunities a week to call family. Those calls are primarily made to their family sponsors in the U.S. and occasionally to call family in the children’s home countries.
- Are case management services being provided?
Case management services currently focus primarily on family reunification. Additional services may be provided in the near future.
- Are all services linguistically and culturally appropriate?
Currently the majority of staff at the facility speak only English. Some children report being unable to communicate with the staff in their language. Most children report using phone or in-person interpreters as needed to communicate with the staff. A few staff are bilingual in English and Spanish. A number of children at the facility speak Mayan languages and there are even less services available to them for interpretation.
- Are post-release services being offered to support families and advocate for legal status for children?
There is a federal grant program that created a network of providers to provide case management and social services to children after release from ORR custody but it is extremely limited and not available in most regions where children are released.
Legal services for children released from ORR custody have been sporadic and based on individual organization funding and capacity, but the Vera Institute of Justice will be funding and coordinating an increase in legal services provided to released children across the country, including those released in Michigan. Additionally, MIRC staff will provide discharge packets that include a list of legal service providers to help aid in the process of finding legal services after being released.
- What oversight and accountability structures are in place for Starr Commonwealth (to the extent involvement goes beyond the facility lease), Community Action, and other providers in these new “influx sites” around the country?
Flores Counsel is authorized to perform monitoring visits and report on their compliance with the Flores Settlement. Disability Rights Advocates of Michigan is also authorized to monitor conditions related to disabilities. Given the unique nature of this federal facility, we are not aware of any other oversight or accountability structures in place for the agencies or staff at the Starr Commonwealth Emergency Intake Site.
- How long do they expect to have these facilities open?
These facilities are meant to be temporary in nature and only open as long as there is a need for additional emergency beds for children, but we do not have any specific timeframe for how long the Starr Commonwealth Emergency Intake Site will be operational.
- How can I help?
You can help make the experience of our child clients a little easier by purchasing items from our Amazon wishlist. The items on this list are child-focused, trauma-informed tools that facilitate our engagement with the children. You can also support the work of our unaccompanied children’s legal team by making a donation to MIRC. Another way you can help is to direct people to our job postings. We are hiring and will continue to hire into the summer to support the work of our unaccompanied children’s team and other MIRC teams more generally.
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