By Friday there were more questions than answers on the fate of immigrant families crossing the border and the children that have already been separated from those families.

First the President issued an executive order that said families would be arrested and kept together. The problem is that there are no placements for those families. It is not clear what then happens next with reports that the Defense Department is being asked to provide space and Homeland Security is getting estimates on construction costs. There are problems in learning where the children are and how many have been separated. The Associated Press reported more than a week ago that 1940 children had been separated from their families between April 19 through May 31. Last week Homeland Security said that 2,342 children had been removed between the days of May 5 through June 9.

While the national numbers were uncertain, where these children are being placed is not any clearer. On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) said that he had just learned that over 700 children were in New York State and he had little information before then. Other states including Maryland, Michigan and Massachusetts also have children who have been separated.

There are also emerging stories of what may be happening to some children. The New York Dailey News on Friday reported that New York City hospitals have treated 12 immigrant children who were separated, with one doctor, Mitchell Katz, Health + Hospitals, being quoted as saying, “The children they have seen have presented with depression, anxiety, asthma, constipation and other ailments…one was suicidal.

The Detroit News reported on Thursday that, “Four days ago, a Homeland Security official proclaimed: ‘We are not separating babies from parents.’ Yet in the middle of the night, two baby boys arrived in Grand Rapids after being separated from their immigrant parents at the southern border weeks ago…”One child is 8 months old; the other is 11 months old. Both children have become part of a bigger group of 50 immigrant children who have landed in foster care in western Michigan under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy. … Many have gone 30 days or more without talking to their parents because their parents can’t be located.”

Defenders of the policy, including the President, have tried to deflect criticism by associating his policy with other forms of trauma. The President has justified the forced trauma these children have faced by equating it with the trauma crime victims feel with the loss of a family member and some of his defenders have tried to equate it with the experience of a child who has a parent who takes a military deployment or assignment. The Society for Research in Child Development has just published an evidence brief: The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Long-term Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences for Children, Families, and Communities.

Although the process is not clear through public information, many of the children are flowing through the HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) which exists to assist refugees settle in the United States as they flee the violence or persecution they have escaped from their original country.

In 2003, as part of a post-9-11 reorganization, the ORR took on the mission of assisting unaccompanied minors, minors who cross into the United States alone and frequently fleeing for their own safety. For unaccompanied minors that mission became more important with the enactment of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which sought to reduce human trafficking across the world. ORR has partnerships with numerous nonprofit and charitable organizations to assist in their main mission for both of these populations.

The role of ORR for both refugee families and unaccompanied minors is to provide help and transition for families settling into their new country and communities. For youth, the placement and help is based on their needs and circumstances and placement is intended to be the least restrictive placement. Now the ORR is confronted with the task of assisting children of varying ages that have not escaped but have been taken from their parents.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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