Thursday, July 18, 2024

Immigrant Parents Struggle to Find Children who Crossed the Border Alone

Every night for the past three weeks, after finishing a long day of work, a Guatemalan father of two dials the same number hoping to find his daughters. Every call, he’s put-on hold, sometimes for hours, sometimes he eventually reaches someone who tells him, “Be patient.”

His daughter, ages 9 and 13, are in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where they’re safe, the hotline operators tell him. However, they can’t give out the girl’s information, stating that it’s confidential.

Instead, they tell him that he must wait for a case manager to contact him to begin the process of bringing them home. Earlier this week, the operator told him, “This is a situation that requires waiting, patience and serenity.” The father said that is how it always goes which frustrates him because he’s desperate to find his girls.

His daughters, like almost 20,000 other children in HHS care, recently migrated to the U.S. as part of a wave of unaccompanied minors that has stretched the limits of the U.S. immigration system. An HHS spokesperson said that at the start of this year, HHS was able to match one case manager to 12 children but the number of children per manager has increased as the agency scrambles to hire more people who can look after each child’s welfare and placement in homes with parents or sponsors.

For parents trying to find their children through the hotline, the system can already seem overwhelmed. Although an HHS spokesperson said the average wait time is less than one minute, lawyers and advocates say many calls are put on a long hold immediately after they are answered.

Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of Every Last One, an advocacy group helping the Guatemalan father said the father’s frustration and desperation are like what she has seen with many other parents who are living in the U.S. and trying to find their children. Cohen expressed, “We have dealt with hundreds in the past two months. We are getting calls from parents who can’t find their children. Traditionally, the parent would hear from their child or a case manager within a couple of days. Now they are going weeks and weeks without hearing from anybody.”

For HHS, getting children into the hands of parents or sponsors is imperative to open new space to accommodate the growing number of children crossing the border and to alleviate backups in Border Patrol stations. Both, documented and undocumented parents are treated the same when it comes to reuniting with their children in HHS custody and the Biden administration has reassured that their information won’t be shared with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.