(WXYZ) — The images are harrowing; young children, mostly from Central America, alone at the southern U.S. border seeking safety and shelter. Most are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
Unaccompanied minors at the border is a growing problem according to recent data, made more complicated by overcrowded facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a recent report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of minors trying to cross the border alone jumped by 61% between January and February of this year to 9,400; the highest monthly total since spring of 2019.
When minors arrive at the border alone, they're first detained by Customers and Border Protection, according to supervising attorney Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Once in CBP custody, the children will be assessed to determine if in fact they are deemed unaccompanied, meaning they are under 18 and not traveling with a parent or a legal guardian. Once designated unaccompanied, the children are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services.
ORR has different subcontractors across the country to provide temporary or long-term housing for the children.
“All of our foster homes are full that serve this program," said Michelle Haskell, who heads up community outreach for Samaritas.
Samartias is a faith-based nonprofit based in Detroit and currently houses a little more than 20 migrant children around the state. Haskell said the goal is to expand capacity to house 50 as demand for placement continues to grow.
The surge has been over the past couple of months, Haskell said.
The process of arriving at the border and then being placed elsewhere around the country is a lot for a child to process, and can be traumatic.
“A lot of time they arrive in the middle of the night, which is a lot for any kid but especially for a kid that just spent a long time traveling. They’re with people who they’re familiar with. And a lot of people don’t speak their language," Haskell told 7 Action News.
Bethany Christian Services is also stretched thin right now, according to program manager Yanitza Cruz-Perez. They're currently providing temporary foster care to 87 migrant youths.
“It just went from a few referrals to now, there are referrals every day. And we’re not able to take all of that cases because of the lack of foster parents," Cruz-Perez said. “They’re feeling violence, gangs in their community.”
The goal of these agencies is to reunite the children with their families, whether that's here in the U.S. or in their home countries.
Attorneys with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center provide legal representation to the kids once they arrive here in Michigan.
Unlike in the U.S. criminal justice system, immigration matters are considered civil, which means migrants and migrant children are not automatically provided government counsel that U.S. citizens are entitled to.
"The biggest challenge would be having enough funding to represent every single child that's placed in Michigan," Ontiveros-Chavez said.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center represented 199 migrant children. As Ontiveros-Chavez noted, that number is on the low end given Title 42 expulsions, related to public health amid the pandemic. The policy was lifted in the fall.
"The number last year was a lot lower because of the Title 42 expulsions that applied to children at that time. Meaning that children were being turned away due to public health concerns, and that has been lifted by a federal judge in November.. and now we are seeing more kiddos being able to be let in," she said.
Currently, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center represents 228 migrant children.
State like Michigan could be playing a larger role in the border crisis moving forward.
According to reporting by The Washington Post, which cites two Homeland Security officials and communication from CBP, border officials request airplanes from the Biden administration to move migrants to states closer to the U.S.-Canadian border for processing.
Action News has reached out to the White House for comment.
Late Thursday, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center issued the following statement to Action News:
“In the past, we have let stakeholders know that we represent every child in Michigan and federal custody. However, we are hearing about possible larger facilities opening up in Michigan. We are working to confirm that information; we don’t have access to those children to provide legal services at this time. We share any relevant information with advocates as we learn more.”
In the meantime, local foster organizations are preparing for this demand to continue. Their focus remains on providing safety and security for these children.
“Can imagine a 2-year-old or an 11-year-old not knowing where their family is, like where am I at?" said Cruz-Perez.
Cruz-Perez said Bethany Christian is in great need of short-term fosters right now, which on average she said last between one and three months.