“They Feel Like They Are Being Jailed”

The government wants to build more shelters to detain migrant kids. A former supervisor at one such shelter explains why she couldn’t be a part of it anymore.

Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children.
Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on July 15 in Homestead, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Evelyn Caffo began working at a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children two years ago, she thought she had found a clear way to help her community. “I’m from Peru, so I love to help people from South and Central America,” she explained. Instead, Caffo said, she soon realized she had become part of a system where children were routinely denied necessities out of spite and where “psychological manipulation has become routine.”

“When I started, I thought this is so awesome,” said Caffo, who worked at the Center for Family Services in New Jersey from December 2017 until May 2019, first as a residential counselor and then as a supervisor. But soon, she started noticing shelter employees had a certain attitude toward the kids in their care. “If the kids needed shoes, they’d say, We don’t have shoes. Or if they asked for food, they’d say there’s no more food.”

Shelters like the one Caffo worked in are being held up by federal officials as a partial solution to the humanitarian crisis at the border. After public outrage over migrant children being held for weeks by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in abysmal conditions, administration officials are arguing that they need more funding to move children from the border and hold them in long-term detention centers.

These shelters are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which holds migrant children until a parent, relative, or other guardian comes forward to sponsor them. Unlike the detention centers run by CBP, ORR facilities are meant for longer-term stays and typically have the corresponding infrastructure: cafeterias, classrooms, and counseling services.

Even though they give kids toothbrushes and beds, these long-term shelters have well-documented patterns of abuse and neglect. Elana Levites-Agababa has worked at a health center in Camden for the past two years, where she treated children from two different ORR shelters in southern New Jersey. Though she noted that conditions in the ORR shelters are significantly better than those in CBP’s detention centers, she was alarmed by what she saw at the New Jersey shelters.

Levites-Agababa has spoken out about seeing children in ORR facilities routinely miss medical appointments and be ignored when they voice concerns about feeling ill. “There’s no dignity in how they’re being kept in these homes,” she told Slate. “People are profiting off detaining children.”

Unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to be transferred out of CBP facilities and into ORR’s custody within 72 hours of apprehension. ORR contracts with a number of for-profit and nonprofit shelters, which take the children until they can be placed with a sponsor or a foster family. The Center for Family Services, where Caffo worked, runs several shelters in New Jersey.

“Most of these children entered our country in search of safety, a better life and connection with a family member or caregiver, and our dedicated staff have been largely successful in making those connections and reuniting families, reuniting 95 percent of children with family or a sponsor,” Jen Hammill, a spokesperson for the Center for Family Services, wrote in an email.

Caffo cried tears of relief when she was promoted to the role of supervisor at the shelter. She was thrilled that she would have the chance to improve the lives of the children under her care, many of whom had been traumatized first in their native countries and again as they were shuffled across borders and through the bureaucracy of the immigration system. She thought that she would be able to change the system from within. But as she attempted to make changes, she quickly found that her fellow supervisors and other shelter administrators were ready to push back.

Noticing that the children craved foods they were familiar with instead of the standard milk and cereal, Caffo went in one Sunday morning and made a special breakfast of eggs and beans. “That’s when the problems started,” she said. Administrators “were telling me, ‘You can’t do that.’ When the kids needed clothes I would try to give it to them, but then [the managers] would assign inventory to another person so I couldn’t.”

ORR shelters generated over 4,500 allegations of sexual abuse and harassment between 2014 and 2018; more than 1,000 of those cases—178 of which involved abuse at the hands of adult staff members—were referred to the Department of Justice.

As of June, ORR had received nearly 60,000 referrals from DHS. In May, the agency released a statement saying that if those numbers continued, the 2019 fiscal year would have the largest number of unaccompanied immigrant children in the program’s history. That same month, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 11,000 unaccompanied children along the border.

Caffo remembered a 12-year-old girl who had come to her, crying, saying that she had not only been denied medicine for her headache but had been told that she would get “even dumber” if she took it. “She said, ‘Do you know why I have this pain in my head? I carried baskets full of fruit on my head in the summer because I had to help my mom work,’ ” Caffo recalled.

But she didn’t feel that her co-workers would be interested in that explanation. “A lot of workers at the shelter have this mentality that these kids crossed the border so they’ve committed a crime: They’re criminals,” she said. “So the way they treat them is based on their ideas on why they’re here.”

In response, Hammill wrote that “each child is linked with a caring and highly trained bi-lingual caseworker upon arrival and offered a warm meal, new clothes, and a shower. Within the first few days, children receive a medical examination and appropriate vaccinations. Children are fully informed of the services they will receive while with us and of their rights.”

The Trump administration’s policies have only compounded the crisis.

Previously, the majority of migrant children in shelters were teenagers who would spend a few months in shelters before being placed with family in the U.S. Now, the number of children under 13 is growing. Thus far in 2019, unaccompanied children and families represent 63 percent of all those apprehended at the southern border.

In the past, unaccompanied minors have typically been children who either crossed the border alone or with adults other than their parents. But the current administration has separated many children who came with parents or legal guardians, reclassified them as “unaccompanied,” and detained them.

Many children who come, Levites-Agababa pointed out, have some point of contact in the U.S. already. When they are transferred from the border, she said, it should be to “what is ideally their permanent home as opposed to now, where geographically it has no relation to their home and has substandard medical care and substandard education, and they are cut off from their families.”

Under President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy, all adults, including parents and guardians, were prosecuted for illegal entry and sent into criminal custody. Their children could not follow them under a 1997 settlement that established conditions for the treatment of minors in government custody.

In June 2018, after significant backlash over family separation, Trump signed an executive order directing DHS to keep families together for the duration of their proceedings. But between the zero tolerance policy and the signing of the order, more than 2,500 children were separated from their parents. Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit saying that at least 900 children have been separated from their parents since the executive order was signed last year.

On top of the escalation in immigration enforcement, a 2018 agreement between ORR, CBP, and ICE mandates that the agencies share information, which has discouraged potential sponsors from coming forward to take the children home.

At an oversight hearing, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro said the agreement was “using children as bait and scaring sponsors from coming forward by rendering HHS as an immigration enforcement tool.” She pointed to another recent change: “They began fingerprinting all members of the household beyond those individuals applying to be sponsors, thereby discouraging sponsors from coming forward, leaving children languishing in federal custody.”

Many immigrants have good reason to fear the way their information could be used against them. From July to November 2018, 170 undocumented immigrants were arrested once they came forward to claim children. Congress subsequently passed a law banning the arrest of sponsors with no prior criminal record. Yet that has done little to alleviate fears, and those fears have inevitably led to more children in federal custody. A report from the Women’s Refugee Commission and the National Immigrant Justice Center found that fewer potential sponsors—parents, legal guardians, close relatives—are coming forward out of fear that their information will be sent to ICE.

There may soon be another reason for sponsors to hesitate to take children out of shelters: a new administration policy that could reclassify unaccompanied minors, stripping them of that status (and making it more challenging for them to apply for asylum) if they are sent to stay with a sponsor.

The Washington Post reported that ORR was planning to eliminate English classes, legal aid, and recreational activities like soccer. DHS spokesman Mark Weber told the Post that it was discontinuing anything “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation,” due to a lack of funding. And even as the agency cuts these services, it is expanding: The government is planning to open up new facilities with roughly 3,000 more beds for detained children. Because each facility will be classified as a temporary emergency shelter, it will be exempt from state welfare requirements.

Even before the cuts, Caffo had wondered how any child could stay positive while housed in a facility where, she said, “they feel like they are being jailed.” She quit her job after realizing that the change she was trying to create couldn’t survive the entrenched culture of the system. “I tried making the shelter better,” she said. “Why are we spending so much money creating these shelters when they’re getting abused?”