Children's Voice July/August 2007

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Helping Immigrant Families in Federal Custody

In addition to stepping up border enforcement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been removing undocumented residents in increasing numbers. This has led to several well-publicized raids on large employers, as well as smaller enforcement activity less known by the public. In either case, child welfare providers and others may be called on for help.

Julianne Duncan, Associate Director for Children's Services, Office of Refugee Programs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, answered the following questions for Children's Voice readers unsure of how best to help immigrant families facing federal authorities.

When an entire family is taken into federal custody, what happens to the children?

For children detained with their families, the theory is they are kept with their families, and the whole family is either released or placed in family detention centers in Berks County, Pennsylvania, or Hutto, Texas. Typically, they are held pending the outcome of their immigration case. They are either released in situations in which they get some type of immigration relief, or removed if they don't qualify for relief. Homeland Security runs the facilities via contract with local providers. Sadly, we are aware of situations in which children and parents are separated from each other and held in different facilities.

What happens to unaccompanied children taken into custody?

Unaccompanied children are referred to the Division of Unaccompanied Children's Services (DUCS) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement--not the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program--where they are held in any one of 30 or so facilities in the United States. Most are in Texas, but others are located in Arizona, California, and Florida. The children are predominantly housed in large, institutional-style shelters, although some are placed in foster care or small group care settings. Children are placed wherever there is space, so you cannot assume that if a child is picked up in a particular state state, he will be housed within that state.

What happens to children who may live with their parents but are taken into custody separately or separated from their parents during a raid?

This is a contentious issue. Homeland Security and DUCS both claim these children do not fit the definition of unaccompanied; therefore, many of these children are not turned over to DUCS. Homeland Security cares for them somewhere, but it's very unclear where that may be. These children often are removed from the country quickly, without legal representation before removal.

Do the same agencies handle a child's immigration status case and her care while she is in federal custody?

The child's immigration legal case ticks along independently of her care situation, which is sometimes confusing to those trying to figure out what is happening. While DUCS is taking care of the child and arranging for her reunification with her parents, if possible, Homeland Security is responsible for prosecuting the immigration violation and continues that whether or not the child is released to family.

Anyone who knows the child's alien registration number can navigate the Homeland Security website for the child's immigration case status.

How can I locate an unaccompanied child taken into federal custody?

The best course of action to find and help children picked up in raids is to fax a letter to DUCS at 202/401-1022. The letter should contain as much information as possible about the child, including the date and place of apprehension. Additionally, the letter should explain who is asking for this information and that person's relationship to the child.

If the child is in the DUCS system, he is safe and adequately cared for, and efforts are being made to find his family. If someone knows the whereabouts of the child's kin, this information can help DUCS proceed faster. For children whose parents are detained but the children are not, it isn't wise to contact DUCS regarding the children's care. Getting the children into the system puts them in removal proceedings.

How can I locate a child who has been taken into federal custody with her parents?

If the child is detained with her parents, Homeland Security is responsible. It's a hard system to navigate. She is possibly in a family shelter with her parents, if not yet removed from the country. Pro bono legal help is useful in some cases.

How can the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services help?

We have staff whose responsibility is to provide "best interest" recommendations for children in many of the facilities, and we also provide suitability assessments and follow-up services for some children. Some of our foster care programs take DUCS children who have no family reunification options. Our partner agency, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, similarly has staff in some locations and provides foster care for children with no family reunification options.

For further questions about a child caught in the Homeland Security system, contact our child welfare technical assistance program, Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services, at, or 888/572-6500.

What's the long-term outlook for immigrant families of questionable legal status?

Homeland Security raids in the interior of the country will likely continue. Children and families will continue to be caught up in the care system for DUCS or in family detention under Homeland Security. Children and families will continue to need all our assistance to remain together and receive the best care possible under difficult circumstances.

The long-term outcome for children or families caught in the raids and enforcement system is typically not encouraging. Most do not face the possibility of immigration relief and are removed from the United States to their country of origin.

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