If parents are arrested and separated from children at the border, where do the kids go?

FILE: Immigrant advocates expect more family separations as the Trump administration cracks down on illegal border crossings by parents with children.
FILE: Immigrant advocates expect more family separations as the Trump administration cracks down on illegal border crossings by parents with children.

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U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week stoked the immigration debate in announcing officials will impose a "zero tolerance" policy and prosecute anyone entering the country illegally.

Those referred for prosecution who have their children with them will be separated from their kids, federal officials said.

The Trump administration plan raises several questions about the impact on the detained children. Here's what we know:

What does the “zero tolerance” policy mean for children who are crossing the border with their parents?

If parents are referred for prosecution and detained by immigration officials, their children will be placed in a shelter, just as a minor traveling alone who crosses the border would be. These shelters are run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The “zero tolerance” policy is intended to apply specifically to people who are caught crossing illegally, say U.S. Homeland Security officials. Families who present themselves at a port of entry seeking asylum won’t be separated or prosecuted. However, asylum seekers in recent months have been separated from their children, so there have been exceptions to the rule.

Once the children are in the custody of federal officials, where do they go?

The children would be placed at one of several shelters maintained by ORR located around the country. On its website, Health and Human Services says the shelters are operated by nonprofit organizations, with about half caring for fewer than 50 unaccompanied children. 

ORR pays for and provides all services for the children while they are in care at a shelter. This includes providing food, clothing, education, medical screening, and any needed medical care to the children. Children spend fewer than 35 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community. They remain under staff supervision at all times.

Children stay at the shelters until they can be placed in the care of U.S. relatives or other adult sponsors, such as family friends.

Federal officials did not respond to a request for further information on the shelters, but according to legal service providers who work with unaccompanied minors, there are close to 10,000 shelter beds nationwide.

In 2014, a crush of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border from Central America led ORR to open emergency temporary shelters, including one at a military base in Port Hueneme in Ventura County. That shelter has since been closed.

Will increased demand for shelter beds prompt officials to open more emergency shelters for children?

Federal officials would not provide details on whether they plan to open more shelters or reopen the facility at Port Hueneme. A Health and Human Services spokesman told KPCC by email that "for starters, we have a temporary facility in Homestead, Florida."

That would be a long distance for parents detained in Southern California. But legal providers who work with immigrant families say it's not unusual for children to be placed far away from detained parents.

“It’s very possible that a parent could be sent to one state to a detention facility, and the child sent to a detention shelter in a different state,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, which works with detained families. 

The advocates expect to see more long-distance separations as the latest immigration policy is carried out and demand grows for bed space in both the children's shelters and adult detention centers.

Toczylowski said as more children and teens are sent to federal shelters, the surge could strain the system, much as the arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied minors did back in the mid-2010s.

"One of the challenges when the parent and child are separated is that, because of the strains on both systems, there isn't a lot of coordination," said Toczylowski. 

This, she said, is because children in federal shelters are in the custody of ORR while adults in immigrant detention centers are in the custody of a different agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"It's difficult for the two detention systems to coordinate," Toczylowski said. "It is partly because where they have emergency shelter beds differs, so they have capacity to take additional detainees who are adults in one state, and only have beds for children in another state." 

This could also mean a family has to navigate through two separate immigration courts, she said.

Another concern is finding and reviewing relatives and sponsors who can take in the minors. KPCC reported in 2014 that as the number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving at the border skyrocketed and officials scrambled to seek and screen family members, some children wound up in inadequate or unsafe situations.

"Generally, the ORR does a very good job at vetting sponsors," Toczylowski said. "But ... when you are talking about any government system that is set up to handle a certain number of minors, if you are talking about potentially designating thousands more into that system with very little notice, I think we can expect to see those systems really struggle."

Federal officials say they need to separate families as part of the government's enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told NPR that adults entering the country illegally are breaking the law and should be prosecuted, even if they arrive with their children.