-Many elements of Casa San Diego, an El Cajon facility for unaccompanied children who arrived at the southern border, seem like what one would expect from a boarding school.
There are classrooms, a play area with soccer goals and a medical clinic with superheroes like Wonder Woman, Superman and the Hulk on the walls.
On closer inspection, details about the California-licensed child care facility run by Southwest Key Programs reflect the situation of the children it serves.
It’s surrounded by fencing that is backed by privacy netting, and a sign at the gate warns visitors that it’s under video surveillance 24 hours per day. If someone opens the front door of the facility without first swiping a badge, an alarm blares through the hallway, warning of a potential escape.
According to staff there, about 10 percent of the children held in Casa San Diego were separated from their parents at the border — an issue that has led to massive protests across the country. The rest appeared on their own.
When a child arrives at Casa San Diego, his teacher asks him to teach his new class how to say “Good morning” in his native language.
On Friday morning, a class of 15 boys recited all of the ways they had learned to greet each other — though most were Spanish speakers, they quickly moved through English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Mam, Arabic and many more before erupting into applause.
Staff process new arrivals in an intake room where they’re given fresh clothes and a hot meal. In a corner of the facility, children can make two 10-minute calls per week from a room with six telephones in red booths. A sign in the case manager room, where staff work to reconnect children with sponsors in the U.S., warns to watch out for signs that children might run away.
A bell hangs by the door for children to ring when they reunite with their sponsor. When the bell rings, the facility bursts into applause.
“This will be the sound of hope for all who take refuge with the family of Southwest Key,” a sign by the bell says in Spanish.
The Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families maintains about 100 facilities in 17 states for unaccompanied children, according to an agency official. Most children are eventually released to a sponsor, he said, and the average time a child spends in such a facility is 56 days.
Southwest Key operates 27 centers in California, Arizona and Texas. It has three in the San Diego area — Casa San Diego, Casa El Cajon and Casa Lemon Grove. Casa San Diego is the largest with 65 available beds for boys. The other two hold a combined 25 beds for girls.
Escondido rejected Southwest Key’s attempt to open another facility there, which led to a lawsuit that settled for $550,000.
The number of unaccompanied children referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement tripled between fiscal 2012 and 2017 from 13,625 to 40,810, according to agency data. As a shorter term trend, arrivals dropped about 31 percent in fiscal 2017 from a peak the prior year of 59,170.
Last year, the majority of unaccompanied children in ORR custody were teenage boys with 11 percent under 13 years old. Just under a third of them are girls.
There are currently about 11,351 children in ORR facilities, according to an agency official. That’s about 95 percent of the agency’s current capacity of 11,956 beds though it has another 1,620 on reserve, he said.
An announcement is expected within the next week, he said, about additional facilities for migrant children. That influx from separated families has swelled under a new Trump administration policy that prosecutes everyone, even asylum seekers or parents with children, for crossing the border illegally.
The Trump administration has said that, under law, it has to separate families who cross without authorization. It has pointed to so-called “loopholes” for the situation, specifically a court settlement that restricts the amount of time that children can spend in detention centers to 20 days. That law provides protection for trafficking victims, the asylum process and a Supreme Court ruling that immigrants who for some reason cannot be deported cannot stay in detention indefinitely.
“If members of Congress do not like the laws they pass, they need to change them,” said Jonathan Hoffman, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, on a recent call with reporters. “They should not ask DHS to look the other way. They should not ask DHS to abdicate our oath to enforce the law.”
Critics point out that there is no law that requires the separation of families and that the Trump administration has chosen to implement new policies at the border regarding families.
“This administration’s policies are resulting in another needless, self-made crisis,” a group of 113 organizations wrote in a letter to the president. “This policy traumatizes families, undermines our country’s once honored commitment to ensuring fairness and protection for those fleeing persecution, and only exacerbates the burdens already overwhelming our immigration system.”
There are three main reasons why the federal government separates children who arrive with family members at the southwest border.
The one that is sending an influx of children to ORR facilities is the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal border crossings. Though international agreements say that migrants shouldn’t be criminally punished for immigration offenses if they’re seeking asylum, the new policy means that arriving families — many of them Central American asylum seekers — are split so that the parents can go into the federal criminal system.
“It’s not a policy change to enforce the law,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday when reporters questioned the morality of the family separations caused by the zero-tolerance policy.
Over a two-week time period in May, 658 children were separated from 638 parents because of the zero-tolerance policy, according to a DHS official.
Staff at Casa San Diego said they hadn’t been affected by the influx of now-unaccompanied children because the facility is almost always at capacity. They said the current number of arrivals is typical of the surges they see each summer.
On Tuesday afternoon, in San Diego federal court, Mitchell Dembin, a magistrate judge, accepted 18 guilty pleas from people who had been caught crossing the border illegally in mid-May. He sentenced them to time served — about three and a half weeks — and waived payment of fines.
They would then be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to handle their immigration cases in civil court.
Immigration officials split up just under two percent of families at the border between October 2016 and February of this year, according to DHS. That was before Sessions implemented the “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting illegal border crossings.
In some cases, a medical emergency meant that the parent needed to be hospitalized. For others, officials suspected that the adult was not actually related to the child and was using the minor to try to avoid being detained.
A DHS official cited a Brazilian smuggling ring operating near Laredo, Texas, that routinely used fake birth certificates to bring in 172 people with false family members.
Four men from Central America said that ICE used this reasoning in November to wrongfully separate them from their actual children.
A Congolese woman became a named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the federal government after her then-six-year-old daughter was taken from her when she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry in November. After months apart, a DNA test proved that she was the mother, and the two were reunited in Chicago.
According to DHS, 237 of the 1,768 cases of family separation — or about 13 percent — between October 2016 and February of this year were because immigration officials couldn’t verify the relationship between adult and child.
ICE also separates parents from children at the border if they determine that the adult’s criminal history means that they cannot be released into the community. That’s what happened to Maria, a Salvadorian woman who came to the San Diego border with a recent migrant caravan.
“ERO officers were unable to place the family into an ICE Family Residential Center based on Ms. Serrano’s criminal history in El Salvador,” said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE.
Maria, who preferred not to use her last name because of her pending asylum case, denied having criminal convictions in her home country. ICE declined to reveal the specifics of the criminal history that caused her to be separated from her two sons, ages seven and two.
Maria is at Otay Mesa Detention Center while her two boys, Antonio and Armando, are at an ORR facility in New York. She talks with them by phone for about 20 minutes on Thursdays, she said.
She vividly recalled the trauma of border officials telling her she had 10 minutes to say goodbye to her children.
“My older son knew they wanted to separate us, and he listened to everything and started to cry,” Maria said in Spanish. “‘No Mami,’ he said. ‘I don’t want them to take me away. They should let me stay here. I don’t want them to separate us.'”
Then her youngest, without understanding why, also started to cry, she said.
She left El Salvador in January. Traveling with two young boys to the U.S. border was “complicated,” she said.
“I had to do it to save the lives of my kids. Everything was so that we would have a better life,” she said. “I never thought that this would happen here.”
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