US held nearly 70,000 migrant kids in custody in 2019

The U.S. government had nearly 70,000 migrant children in custody this year, a record number of infants, children and teens at risk for trauma that can cause ongoing physical and emotional problems even after they reach their families.

November 12, 2019, 12:19 AM

COMAYAGUA, Honduras -- The 3-year-old girl traveled for weeks cradled in her father's arms, as he set out to seek asylum in the United States. Now she won't even look at him.

After being forcibly separated at the border by government officials, sexually abused in U.S. foster care and deported, she arrived back in Honduras withdrawn, anxious and angry, convinced her once-beloved father abandoned her.

He fears their bond is forever broken.

"I think about this trauma staying with her too, because the trauma has remained with me and still hasn't faded," he said days after their reunion.

This month new government data shows the little girl is one of an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody over the past year, enough to overflow the typical NFL stadium. That's more kids detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers. And it's happening even though the U.S. government has recognized detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of long-term physical and emotional damage.

Some of these migrant children who were in government custody this year have already been deported. Some have reunited with family in the U.S., where they're trying to go to school and piece back together their lives. About 4,000 are still in government custody, some in large, impersonal shelters. And more arrive every week.


This story is part of an ongoing joint investigation between The Associated Press and the PBS series FRONTLINE on the treatment of migrant children, which includes the film "Kids Caught in the Crackdown" premiering on PBS and online Nov. 12 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST.


The nearly 70,000 migrant children who were held in government custody over the last year — up 42 percent in fiscal year 2019 from 2018 — spent more time in shelters and away from their families than in prior years. The Trump administration's series of strict immigration policies has increased the time children spend in detention, despite the government's own acknowledgment that it does them harm.

"Early experiences are literally built into our brains and bodies," says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who directs Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. Earlier this year, he told Congress that "decades of peer-reviewed research" shows that detaining kids away from parents or primary caregivers is bad for their health.

One Honduran teen who was held in a large detention center for four months before reuniting with his mother earlier this year said that as each day passed, his fear and anxiety grew.

"There was despair everywhere," he recalled.

He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety.

The 3-year-old girl, taken from her father when immigration officials caught them near the border in Texas in March 2019, was sent to government-funded foster care. When a caregiver put her on the phone with him, the girl refused to speak, screaming in anger.

What his daughter didn't, or couldn't, tell her dad was that another child in her foster home woke her up and began molesting her, according to court records. As the days passed, she began urinating on herself and seemed unable to eat or drink, a foster parent said in the records.

"I felt like I couldn't do anything to help her," said her father, who found out about his daughter's abuse while he was in detention. The father agreed to speak about their case on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

In June, he gave up and asked a judge to deport them. The government sent him back to Honduras alone. His daughter followed a month later.

On an August afternoon in their hometown, the little girl had her hair tied up in pigtails. She played with her younger sister, but ignored her father and refused to hold his hand.

He didn't know of any psychological support in their town.

"For now we're going to try to give her more affection, more love and then if there isn't a change we're going to try to find some help," he said.

Federal law requires the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide migrant children with food, shelter, and medical and mental health care. But the HHS Office of Inspector General found there aren't enough clinicians in shelters holding migrant children.

HHS spokesman Mark Weber said that with the largest number of migrant children in their program's history, "you must give credit to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the shelter network staff for managing a program that was able to rapidly expand and unify the largest number of kids ever, all in an incredibly difficult environment."

The American Academy of Pediatrics says migrant children who are detained "face almost universal traumatic histories" and warns of serious consequences if left untreated. But few of the thousands of children separated from their parents are receiving therapy after being deported back to Central America. Many are from impoverished communities where there are few, if any, accessible mental health resources.

Nine out of 10 of the migrant children detained last year came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with fewer than 3% from Mexico. They're fleeing Central America where violence and abuse, even murder, are committed with impunity under corrupt governments the U.S. has supported for decades.

Eskinder Negash, who heads the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, knows the trauma of separation and detention all too well. He fled Ethiopia alone as a teen after his country was thrown into chaos by a military coup.

Negash also knows what it's like to suddenly have to care for tens of thousands of migrant children. He was the Obama administration's ORR director in 2014 when more than 60,000 children arrived at the border. Negash and his team scrambled to shelter them.

Leaving government to head the nonprofit refugee support agency USCRI, Negash wanted to do better for children, in the U.S. and abroad.

This summer, USCRI opened a model government-funded shelter in southern Florida, just down the road from Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club. Rinconcito del Sol, which translates to "A Little Corner of Sunshine," has no uniformed security guard at the entrance. The residents, girls 13-17, can call their families as needed staff say, and there are more therapeutic services — including intensive treatment for victims of trafficking and abuse — throughout the week.

"The girls come in very sad, nervous, not knowing what to expect, unsure what the future holds for them," said shelter director Elcy Valdez. "We give them that sense of security, of safety for the first time."


Sherman reported from Comayagua, Honduras and Santa Tecla, El Salvador. Burke reported from Lake Worth, Florida. Mendoza reported from Washington, DC. FRONTLINE reporters Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, and AP Data Journalist Larry Fenn contributed to this report.

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