When Flor was 7 years old, she watched her father get brutally murdered and her mother raped during what a Guatemalan judge recently ruled was a genocide of indigenous Mayans by that country’s military.
“That image stayed with me. And every time I think of it I feel a great pain here,” said the 45-year-old K’iche Maya woman, pointing to her chest. “I’m scared to go back.”
The horrors she saw as a child and the lack of opportunity she found as an adult led Flor to flee to the United States in 2004.
Her nephew’s son, Carlos, followed — alone — a decade and a half later. (Flor asked that she and Carlos be identified using only pseudonyms out of concern for their safety.)
Flor, who does not have legal status in the United States, wants to sponsor the 16-year-old, but a recent federal policy change is discouraging her and other immigrants from sponsoring migrant children for fear of deportation themselves, advocates say, leaving the children to languish in detention centers or shelters.
This spring, under an agreement between the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement began sharing information with Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement dictates fingerprints be collected from not only potential sponsors but from all adults in their household.
While ICE says the change is meant to keep children safe from traffickers, immigration attorneys say it can deter people who don’t have documentation or who are going through immigration proceedings themselves, increasing the length of detentions for youth.
Currently, the average length of care for unaccompanied children in HHS shelters is approximately 59 days, up from 41 days during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2017. Immigration attorneys say they have seen the time minors spend in shelters increase dramatically over the past six months.
“It makes it really difficult for us because it just means that the minors are going to stay at the shelter longer, but we also have a duty to inform those that are at risk. So it’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said Helany Sinkler, the family reunification programs and anti-trafficking services manager at the Esperanza Center in Southeast Baltimore.
Since the April signing of the agreement, ICE has arrested 41 people who came forward in the sponsorship process, an ICE senior official, Matthew Albence, told Congress in September. Twelve were criminal arrests, CNN reported.
There have been two cases in Maryland in which ICE detained a potential sponsor for a child, said Karine Noncent with the D.C.-based Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a legal resources nonprofit that represents detained immigrants in Maryland and Virginia jails and juvenile facilities.
ICE declined to comment on arrests made as a result of this new process.
Carlos, who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in August, has been detained in an Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded shelter for more than two months.
He is part of a recent surge of Guatemalan, El Salvadoran and Honduran children fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, according to a study by The Center for Global Development examining US Customs and Border Protection data.
“His parents are worried. They’re sad,” Flor said. “They don’t know when they will let him out.”
Flor submitted her fingerprints, but under the new policy also must provide those of her roommate, a man with no connection to Carlos. She pleaded with him, explaining this was crucial for her to take her great-nephew in. He declined, giving her no other option than to search for new housing.
“I don’t have money to go to another place,” Flor said. “I’ve been fighting — I paid for the fingerprinting, I presented my tax ID, my passport, proof of work. It’s not easy to take in a child, and it costs a lot of money.”
Shelter case managers seek out relatives, family friends and former neighbors to be a child’s sponsor. If none is found, the child may be placed in foster care.
Placing children with someone other than their intended sponsor could potentially put them at higher risk of being trafficked or abused, Sinkler said. The long-term health effects of extended stays in detention centers and shelters also concern advocates.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking to overturn the 1992 Flores agreement, which protects migrant children from being held in jail-like conditions and requires their release “without unnecessary delay” and requires the government to undertake “prompt and continuous efforts” towards family reunification.
If the agreement is struck down, it could mean indefinite detention for families and unaccompanied children. The proposed rule is up for public comment through Nov. 6.
For her part, Flor said she will do what it takes to make sure Carlos can live a better life.
“Of course I’m scared — but I do it for the boy,” she said. “What will I do if they send me back? I can only hope in the goodness of my God."