We haven’t seen their faces. We don’t know their names. We only know a number: 711.
That’s how many immigrant kids from separated families remain in custody, according to the latest government tally.
Officials say that, for various reasons, their families weren’t eligible for reunification by Thursday’s deadline. They might be in the future, although a former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement warned this week that some of the children might never see their parents again.
What happens to these kids could vary greatly depending on each individual case. Attorneys are still battling over the next steps in court.
And as the landscape shifts, lawyers for immigration advocacy groups are trying to figure things out as they go.
“It’s just layers and layers of legal complexities that have been created,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal representation for unaccompanied minors.
One point of confusion: Although these children crossed the border with their parents, they’re now considered “unaccompanied alien children” in the government’s eyes – the same as if they’d come to the United States alone.
“There are some really thorny legal questions that arise,” Young said, since these children became so-called unaccompanied minors only after officials separated them from their parents.
Here are some of the possible outcomes we can expect to see, based on how the government has handled the cases of unaccompanied minors in the past, and what we know about this group of children:
Remaining in government custody
In the short term, these kids are in the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which has been charged with the care and placement of unaccompanied alien children since 2003.
The division operates more than 100 shelters across the country that house thousands of children until they can be released to sponsors while their immigration cases continue.
Many of the shelters are run by contractors, such as the massive facility inside a former Walmart in Texas that reporters toured last month.
The average length of stay in ORR custody is 57 days, officials said in June. But there’s no limit on how long a kid can be held at an ORR facility, Young said.
Being released to other family members or designated sponsors
About 90% of unaccompanied kids in ORR custody are released to sponsors, Young said. Sponsors usually end up being family members, she said, and more than half the time they’ve been parents.
It’s hard to know what the breakdown will be for the 711 kids who remain in custody. But officials have said some children from separated families were already released to sponsors.
According to the agency’s website, sponsors:
• Are adults who are suitable to provide for the child’s physical and mental well-being
• Have not engaged in any activity that would indicate a potential risk to the child
• Must pass a background check
• Must agree to ensure the child’s presence at all future immigration proceedings
• Must agree to ensure the minor reports to ICE for removal from the United States if an immigration judge issues a removal order or voluntary departure order
Entering the foster care system
What happens if a sponsor can’t be found to care for a child?