About 70 separated immigrant children sheltered in Chicago area
About 70 immigrant children who were separated from their parents during President Donald Trump's two-month "zero tolerance" illegal immigration crackdown are being housed at Chicago area shelters.
That's according to operators of those shelters -- the Heartland Alliance in Chicago and the Des Plaines-based Maryville -- who say many of these children designated as "unaccompanied alien children" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services often have no connection to the Chicago area. The agencies are specially certified to handle these juvenile cases.
During a visit from Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, Heartland officials confirmed Friday they were sheltering 66 children separated from immigrant parents, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 13. Meanwhile, Maryville officials acknowledged they were caring for a "few" others. Those children are between the ages of 13 and 17, spokeswoman Marcy Jensen said.
Illinois only has a few agencies licensed to handle cases of immigrant children who were caught crossing borders alone or seeking asylum without an adult. About 500 beds are available throughout the Chicago area to handle unaccompanied immigrant youngsters, local advocacy officials said.
Between April 11 and June 20, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal authorities to separate children caught attempting to illegally cross the border from accompanying parents and relatives. Trump signed an executive order rescinding the practice following public outcry, but it only addresses future cases. Many of the estimated 2,300 children separated during that time have yet to be reunited with family. Federal officials said about 500 immigrant children previously separated have been returned to parents who remain in custody.
Many of those children remain in detention centers near the southern border. Colleen Kraft, president of the Itasca-based American Academy of Pediatrics, toured a Texas "tender-care" facility where young migrant children separated from their parents had been placed. Typically toddler gatherings are full of rambunctious play and meltdowns. At the facility, Kraft found a homey place, with books, toys and an "eerie quiet" in the toddler room.
"They were just looking at us with big, round eyes, not saying anything, not interacting with each other," said Kraft, a Northbrook pediatrician. The only sound came from "a little girl, no more than 2, just sobbing and crying and really sad. A shelter worker was trying to distract her with toys and books, and this child was not comforted."
Kraft's visit was in April 2018 in the early stages of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy. Staff at the center were not permitted to comfort and pick up children, Kraft said. The children were clean and well-fed but "it was not a pediatric-friendly environment."
When children undergo trauma without a loving parent or adult to help buffer stress, "they can develop lasting problems with their brain architecture," Kraft said. This can lead to development problems with speech and motor skills.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Office or Refugee Resettlement, 19,658 unaccompanied alien children have been placed in sponsored homes this year. Sponsors are either family members or licensed caretakers who agree to all the stipulations involved in the legal happenings of the child's immigration case. Of those children moved into sponsored homes, only 275 were in Illinois, 104 in Cook County, 69 in DuPage County and the rest in other counties around the state.
The resettlement agency has handled 40,810 new cases of unaccompanied minors so far this year. They dealt with 59,170 cases in 2017, according to their website.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.