CHICAGO — Of the tens of thousands of children who recently have fled their Central American homes for the Southern U.S. border, nearly 500 have found temporary homes in Chicago.
And while the president and Congress grapple with how to deal with the influx, a new Pew Research survey shows the majority of Americans would prefer to speed up the deportation process, even if some children eligible for asylum are deported.
In Chicago, immigrant children are being temporarily housed in nine undisclosed facilities across the city, which are funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee and Resettlement and operated locally by the Heartland Alliance.
“When the children first arrive, they’re very much shell-shocked,” said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a program run by Heartland Alliance.
Jackie Kostek explains how the children end up in Chicago and how long they stay:
Huebner’s job includes reviewing exchanges between children and the immigration lawyers on her staff, but she also works one-on-one with children who are her clients.
“They’ve been through trauma. The journey has been incredibly arduous, exhausting,” Huebner said. “They can often be in rough shape when they first get to the shelters.”
For that reason, Huebner’s staff waits several days before meeting with the children to provide any legal services. In those in-between days, Huebner said the children begin to recover and assimilate.
“It’s the first time that many of these children have had the opportunity to really be children and not to have the worry about the difficulties and the trauma that they’ve gone through in their home countries,” Huebner said.
“It takes a long time for children to open up,” said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a national organization that stands up the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children. “Kids cases should not be accelerated such that they don’t have time to really present their case.”
The average shelter stay is less than 35 days, according to a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. At that point, many children are released to family while they await immigration proceedings.
“It doesn’t mean they have permission to stay,” Woltjen said, “but there’s a recognition that detention is not good for children, and they should be living with family if they have family in the U.S.”
Though typical immigration proceedings could take years — partly due to a backlog of cases in immigration courts, Woltjen said — many unaccompanied immigrant children could seek asylum through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or through the human trafficking law known by its acronym, TVPRA. Huebner, of Heartland Alliance, said if relief is granted to a child (through SIJ or TVPRA), her immigration proceedings would be terminated.
Woltjen said there’s no correlation between shelter placement and where the children’s families live. Likely, many of the children temporarily housed in Chicago will end up with family members across the country.
Huebner said although the children’s individual stories may be complicated and nuanced, the majority of children have fled harm in their home country and want to stay in America.
“They had to leave because they didn’t think they’d be able to survive in their home country,” Huebner said. “For the most part, their legal interest is pretty clear.”
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