Sponsors of migrant children in US face steep transport fees and red tape

Children play in the patio of the Centro Madre Assunta, a shelter for migrant women and children, in Tijuana, on June 20, 2018.
Children play in the patio of the Centro Madre Assunta, a shelter for migrant women and children, in Tijuana, on June 20, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - Mr Marlon Parada, a construction worker in Los Angeles, already was worried when he got an urgent call from his cousin in Honduras, asking if he would agree to take in the cousin's 14-year-old daughter.

She had been taken from her mother while trying to cross the border and was detained in Houston, he said. She could not be released unless a family member agreed to take her in.

Mr Parada, an immigrant himself who is supporting his wife and three daughters on US$3,000 (S$4,089) a month, wondered how he could afford to take on another responsibility.

Then he learnt that he would have to pay US$1,800 to fly the girl, Anyi, and an escort from Houston to Los Angeles.

"It caught me by surprise when they demanded all that money. I asked them to just put her on a bus, but they wouldn't," said Mr Parada, who scrambled to amass the cash from friends and wired it to the operator of the migrant shelter where Anyi was being held.

But that was only one of the hurdles he would have to surmount to take custody of the girl. Families hoping to win release for the thousands of migrant children being held by federal immigration authorities are finding they have to navigate an exhausting, intimidating and, sometimes, expensive thicket of requirements.

Candidates for sponsorship must produce a plethora of documents to prove they are legitimate relatives and financially capable sponsors, including rent receipts, utility bills and proof of income. Home visits are increasingly common. And once those conditions are met, many families must pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in airfare.

"The government is creating impossible barriers and penalising poverty," said director of immigration Neha Desai at the National Centre for Youth Law in Oakland, California.

An estimated 11,000 children and teenagers apprehended after crossing the border are housed in up to 100 government-contracted facilities across the country. Their numbers have grown in recent weeks as the Trump administration has imposed a "zero tolerance" policy, purporting to end the strategy of "catch and release" under which migrants were often allowed to go free pending hearings in the immigration courts.

Under the most controversial part of the new strategy, more than 2,300 children were separated from their families and placed in shelters occupied mainly by young people who had made their way across the border alone.

President Donald Trump relented last month and ordered that families be kept together whenever possible, but authorities are struggling to process the estimated 2,000 separated children still in federal facilities.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has official custody of migrant children under detention and establishes conditions for releasing them, has made it clear that the requirements are intended to make sure children are not released to traffickers and will be well cared for in their new homes.

In testimony to the Senate in late April, Mr Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of health and human services, said that in assessing a sponsor's suitability, the agency "evaluates the sponsor's ability to provide for the child's physical and mental well-being but also the sponsor's ability to ensure the child's presence at future immigration proceedings".

The requirement for sponsors to pay transportation costs has long been part of the agency's procedures and was not initiated by the Trump administration, officials said.

Immigrant advocates say that migrant families often have spent their savings to reach the United States and that their relatives here may not have much money, either.

One potential sponsor was rejected recently because authorities decided she could not afford the child's medication, said Ms Desai, the immigration director of the National Centre for Youth Law. A mother of two was told that her house was not large enough to accommodate a third child. Another was told that she had to move to a better neighbourhood.

A new condition requires that all adults in the household where a migrant child will reside submit fingerprints to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Such a requirement has intimidated many unauthorised immigrants, who represent the majority of sponsors but fear being targeted for deportation themselves.

"Previously, people readily identified themselves" to sponsor a child, said Ms Lisa Rivera, managing attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group. But, she added: "This is not an environment where someone is going to call and say, 'I want to take my child, niece or nephew'. They have to find someone who has legal status."

Brenda, a Salvadoran migrant who was separated from her seven-year-old son, Kevin, at the border on May 27, was charged US$576 to cover the boy's airfare from Miami to Virginia.

"I was shocked that they had to pay for the boy's airfare," said Ms Astrid Lockwood, the lawyer for the mother and child. Ms Lockwood said that in a decade of practising immigration law she had never seen this requirement but noted that she also had not encountered children placed in facilities thousands of miles from their ultimate destination, as has occurred in recent weeks.

Under the policy manual of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, sponsors are responsible for paying transportation costs for both the child and any escort, along with airline fees for transporting unaccompanied minors.

The payment requirement was also in place during the Obama administration, although it was waived in 2016 when a surge of families crossing the border created large populations in migrant shelters. Shelter operators were instructed to pay for transportation to enable families to reunite more quickly and were then reimbursed by the government, said Mr Bob Carey, who led the refugee resettlement office during the Obama administration.

The thinking was that it was "counter-intuitive to keep a child in care", he said.

"The human cost incurred aside, the financial cost for the government is significant. One day of care could cover transportation costs," he said. Each day a child remains in a facility costs the government upward of US$600 a day, and it can rise to as much as US$1,000 if a provider has to absorb new children on short notice, Mr Carey said.

On a case-by-case basis, immigrant families sometimes get help with transport costs. Non-profits may help cover the airfare. Sometimes lawyers and other advocates persuade a child's case manager to reduce the travel fee or waive it altogether because of hardship.

In the case of the Parada family in Los Angeles, Mr Parada said both Anyi and her mother had been through a lot in their journey and detention, and he knew it was important to get the girl out of the shelter as quickly as he could.

Mother and daughter had travelled over land by bus and car to reach the southwest border in early May. After wading through the Rio Grande to reach Texas, they were intercepted by the Border Patrol, Anyi told her family. They were then separated: Anyi's mother was transferred to a detention centre in Seattle; the girl was transported to Casa Quetzal, a shelter for minors in Houston.

The separation prompted Anyi's father in Honduras to reach out to his cousin in California.

After compiling dozens of documents and submitting his fingerprints for a background check, Mr Parada learnt that he would have to pay the US$1,800 in airfare: one way for the girl, round trip for her escort.

"They notified me a day before her release," he said. "I had no choice."