National News

What’s Behind the ‘Tender Age’ Shelters Opening for Young Migrants

Posted June 20, 2018 8:25 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 8:28 p.m. EDT

The shelters were intended for children under the age of 12, referred to as “tender age” detainees, who are entering the detention system in ever-larger numbers under the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents who enter the country illegally.

Many are toddlers and babies and require special care, and their numbers have been rising since last month, when the government enforced a “zero tolerance” policy on people crossing the border. Since then, estimates suggest that more than 2,400 children under the age of 12 have been separated from their parents.

But on Wednesday, faced with the intense criticism over the shelters and the separation of families, President Donald Trump retreated, signing an executive order that would detain parents and children together. For now, it seems the separations will stop, but it remains unclear what will happen going forward. A Health and Human Services official said that children already separated will not be immediately reunited with their parents while the adults remain in custody during their immigration proceedings..

The executive order came just hours after reports that three centers in southern Texas — in Brownsville, Combes and Raymondville — were being outfitted to accommodate younger children.

A person inside a shelter in Brownsville, Texas, took a series of pictures and supplied them to The New York Times. The facility, which houses babies and toddlers, is operated by Southwest Key Programs, the same nonprofit group that operates a shelter at a former Walmart.

One image showed a toddler girl who is about 12 months old, playing on a colorful mat decorated with the letters of the alphabet and drawings of animals. The workers and others standing around the little girl wear blue hospital-style bootees to keep the wooden floor clean.

The girl was separated from her relatives for about a month as part of the family-separation policy, according to the person who took the photo, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release an image.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., toured the Brownsville center on Monday with other Democratic lawmakers. The delegation said 80 migrant children were in the shelter, 40 of whom were separated from their families. The rest were unaccompanied by a parent or guardian when they were apprehended crossing the border.

“When we were there, the kids 5 and under were in a room taking a nap,” Luján said. He described some of the bedrooms as having four beds: a bunk bed, a single bed and a cot. “I have to imagine that these were hospital rooms that were turned into bedrooms now for the kids.”

He described a colorful infants room, with two cribs, two high chairs and a rubber playmat. Two little boys were wearing the same orange-striped shirt.

He said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston held a boy, who was 8 or 9 months old and had been separated from his family by the government. “A little boy reached out to Sheila and just held on,” Luján said.

On Wednesday, Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is suing Trump on behalf of a pornographic film actress, said in McAllen, Texas, that he was representing more than 50 detained immigrant mothers who have been separated from their children.

“I met with 10 mothers yesterday in detention,” Avenatti said. “And one by one they broke down hysterically, crying, about having their child taken from them.” In some cases, he said the mothers were told that their children were being taken to be given a bath and had not been returned to them.

A backlash against the “tender age” shelters erupted on Tuesday night after The Associated Press first reported news of their existence. The MSNBC late night host Rachel Maddow broke down crying on the air as she read the AP article.

Referrals of young children have risen “exponentially” since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced, according to Elizabeth Frankel, associate director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. The center pairs migrant children with lawyers and social workers who advocate on their behalf until they are reunited with parents.

“Nobody knows what to do,” Frankel said, explaining that her colleagues have been charged with caring for “a number of infants,” including some as young as 8 and 10 months. Many of the children are too young to speak, Frankel said. Without knowing where or even who the parents are, Frankel’s colleagues have struggled to advocate for the children.

Frankel said that contract workers were well trained and doing their best to help but that the youngest children are struggling even more than older ones because they cannot understand what is happening. “The young kids think that their parents have abandoned them, or that something very bad has happened to them,” she said.

“They’re in crisis. They’re just crying uncontrollably,” she said. “We’ve seen young kids having panic attacks, they can’t sleep, they’re wetting the bed. They regress developmentally, where they may have been verbal but now they can no longer talk.” Since the administration’s policy became public, doctors and child welfare experts have spoken out about the potential health implications of separation, citing an increased risk for children of anxiety and depression, as well as post-traumatic stress and attention-deficit disorder.

The potential for long-term effects, such as prolonged emotional problems, will depend in part on the age of the children as well as the length of time during which they are separated from their parents, experts have said.

The shelters are run by private organizations that contract with the federal government to provide education and health care.

Representatives of the Health and Human Services Department, which cares for the children, did not respond to requests for data on Wednesday on the number of tender-age children in custody. But Frankel said that her organization had been informed that government facilities were at capacity.

“They are placing the children wherever there is an available bed,” she said. Some are being flown thousands of miles away from their parents.

Frankel said most of the youngest children were being placed overnight in temporary foster homes, and then transported during the day to government facilities for case management and other services. Children who were old enough were going to school during the day, she said, while the babies are kept together in rooms where they are cared for by contract workers.