Four months after he was turned away at the door of a Texas border detention center that houses thousands of undocumented immigrant children, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III returned for a tour this week as the population of detainees continues to climb amid what the Newton Democrat calls “obstacles and unnecessary delays” fueled by the Trump administration.
While many children separated from their parents under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy earlier this year have been reunited through a court order, the overall number of migrant children placed in facilities like the one in Tornillo, Texas, Kennedy visited Monday has only ballooned.
Last month, there were a total of 12,800 children in federal government custody — a stark rise compared to the 2,400 children recorded in May 2017, despite the fact that the number of arrivals at the nation’s borders has remained consistent, The New York Times reported.
In an interview with Boston.com Tuesday evening, Kennedy blamed the bottleneck on policies enacted by the Trump administration, which he said is not “releasing these children to sponsors under an appropriate timeline.”
“They have constructed and maintained obstacles and unnecessary delays in that process that are forcing these kids to stay in camps like the one in Tornillo for far longer than they should and for far longer than is necessary, thereby exacerbating their trauma, and at a large expense to taxpayers, and in violation of responsibilities of our governing agencies to actually do what’s best for the children that are in their care,” he said.
Specifically, Kennedy pointed to a Trump administration practice that shares fingerprints collected by law enforcement to vet potential sponsors for undocumented immigrant children with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The information has been used in some cases to arrest would-be sponsors with immigration violations of their own, according to CNN.
Sponsors house children and make sure they comply with immigration policies and court proceedings, The Washington Post reports. They are usually close relatives.
Kennedy acknowledged the importance of making sure children are sent to safe homes, but criticized how the new process can contribute to both deportations for folks stepping forward to take in children and to delays in the sponsor-matching program.
President Donald Trump also confirmed last week that the administration is weighing implementing another family separation policy, telling reporters, “If they feel there will be separation, they won’t come.”
“What this administration has decided to do is to take out the challenges with a comprehensive immigration fix this administration has obstructed and that frustration out on the shoulders of these kids because it’s the kids that then end up sitting in these detention centers for longer than they should,” Kennedy said.
In Tornillo Monday, the 4th Congressional District lawmaker spoke with numerous children at the “tent city” center, which houses approximately 1,400 children between the ages of 13 and 17, he said. Over 800 of them have identified sponsors across the country.
While administration officials told him the average length of stay for a child in the complex is 29 days, many children told Kennedy personally that they had been there for over a month, he said.
“Two of the girls that were at the table I spoke with, one had a family in Boston and one had family in Lynn,” Kennedy said. “The one that had family in Lynn asked my staff member for us to take her with us on our plane so that she could go see her family. The one that identified family in Boston was begging to leave with us so that she could see her family again.”
He added that the centers were well maintained, clean, decorated, and equipped with cots, bunk beds, and climate controls. The staff there “seemed to be doing the best they could to care for these kids under the circumstances,” Kennedy said, but he was dismayed by what children told him — that they weren’t receiving help navigating the legal processes.
“I asked every kid I talked to, ‘Is somebody helping you to a person?’ And they all said, ‘No,'” he said. “I don’t know what to make of that. I find it hard to believe those little girls thought that there was access to somebody that can help them get reunited with their families given how desperate they were to me, that they would certainly avail themselves of those services. And yet an administration official said it appears that some of them don’t want that and they’d rather just wait it out, which I clearly cannot understand.”
Asked about what role Congress could have in a potential solution, Kennedy said oversight from lawmakers is needed along with legislative fixes to ensure authorities are working within federal law and to streamline the sponsorship process without compromising national security.
Connecting children with sponsors faster would minimize the trauma many children face while living in the government facilities, he said.
“They’re saying that the level of trauma that they’re seeing in these kids is as high as they’ve ever seen with anybody, and one of the issues with mental health care is it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself immediately,” said Kennedy, who visited a tender age care facility housing young migrant children in New York City in July. “The kids are going to be in need of prolonged care and medical consultation for a long period of time. And is there any provision made for that? Not yet.”