Local nonprofit works to reunite children

The hotly contested debate over separation of children from their parents who have crossed the Mexico-U.S. border illegally has spilled over into Michigan.

According to Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, which aims to protect and enhance the lives of children and families, it has provided services to 81 children in Michigan since May when the Donald Trump administration announced the “zero tolerance” policy. The policy allowed officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to separate children from their parents who have entered the country illegally.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in May if a person is caught crossing the border unlawfully, he or she will be prosecuted for unlawful entry, a federal crime.

However, that policy was rescinded by Trump in late June. Nevertheless, the policy has caused a new problem: reuniting families.

A spokesperson for Bethany said the team is working diligently to reunite the children with their parents.

Once ICE has taken the children, they are detained by the Department of Homeland Security and transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Meghan Moore, an immigration attorney at Avanti Law Group in Wyoming, said DHHS has a limited amount of time to place children in an organization like Bethany, which it said is 72 hours, and then the nonprofit can begin the reunification process.

The time constraint, Moore said, is because a federal judge issued a consent decree in 1997 during the Flores Settlement, stating the government must release children from immigrant detention without “unnecessary delay” to either their parents, relatives or a licensed foster program.

Bethany said the children will not be adopted.

“The children have families, and we will continue to pursue reunification with their families,” Bethany said in a statement.

Bethany said it receives funding to support the services it believes the children need, including food, clothing, a clinician, a case manager, a trauma-informed teacher and a foster family to provide trauma support.

“The treatment team works together to assess and meet the needs of the child, as well as evaluate the ability of an identified family member to care for that child through a formal application process,” Bethany said in a statement. “The treatment team then makes a recommendation for placement of that child, based on the family member’s application. That recommendation is then reviewed by HHS, and when approved, we proceed with reunification.”

However, Bethany said it acknowledges the process may be challenging to find family members who are able to provide care if the primary caregivers are in detention.

In 2014, Moore said the Obama administration detained mothers and children for months at a time while they sought asylum in the U.S., but after a few lawsuits, that process was ruled illegal.

“In response to that atrocity and some follow-up lawsuits about it, it was declared that the Flores Settlement basically also applied to families in detention,” Moore said. “So now, keeping parents and their children locked up for a long time is a no-no.”

Reuniting children with their parents or guardian has been an immense task for Bethany, especially when a child’s family may be anywhere in the country or even deported.

Nevertheless, Bethany said its sole mission is to and has always been, and will always be, to keep and bring families together.

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