Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Find Foster Homes in Alabama

Children marched in a New York City demonstration protesting Trump’s immigration policies. (Source: Karla Cote. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0.)

Federal officials have placed 2,729 unaccompanied immigrant children in Alabama since 2015, with most finding foster homes in Jefferson, Marshall, Morgan and Tuscaloosa counties.

Of those, 453 found foster homes in Alabama this year through April, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Information on how many children have been settled in the state since April – including during the recent separation of families as part of a zero-tolerance policy – is not yet available.

In fact, little public information is known about the children after they are placed.

Most welfare checks of unaccompanied immigrant children fostered in Alabama and elsewhere are done through private agencies contracted to the ORR. The ORR places the responsibility for care of the child in the hands of the person who has agreed to foster the child while he or she awaits immigration hearings.

The children await their fate from immigration officials. Their applicants, approved by the ORR, usually are a parent or legal guardian. Other caretakers can be a close relative, a distant relative or an unrelated adult.

The state has no role in the children’s welfare. The Alabama Department of Human Services does not regularly check on the children, said DHR spokesman Barry Spear,

“DHR is not notified of these placements, and they are not under our care,” Spear said.

Birmingham’s Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama has no knowledge of what happens to the children after they are placed with sponsors.

“We simply take fingerprints of relatives who are referred to us from shelters along the border,” said Carlos E. Alaman of HICA’s board of directors.

ORR selects the child sponsor and private agencies, under contract to ORR, and sends the information to HICA. HICA does not run the background checks on the potential caretakers.

“We send the fingerprints digitally and sometimes in ink to ORR, and they do the background check,” said Lucia Gaona, HICA’s immigration and access to justice program manager.

“We have served 11 states, but it does not mean we are in charge of the process for all of these states,” Gaona said. “HICA does not get information about what happens with the child after we fingerprint the sponsor. ORR will not release that information to us because of confidentiality. We do not provide any follow-ups with them unless they call us for legal screenings or referrals for the sponsors.”

“If no sponsor comes forward, the children get passed to ORR, which places them in private shelters like Southwest Keys,” Gaona said. “ORR is the only one that knows all information about the children and where they get placed.”

So little is released about the placement of the children that even the locations of shelters that care for multiple children are largely unknown. The journalism group ProPublica is calling on the public for help identifying the shelters and documenting conditions in them.

ORR does require that individuals seeking to foster a child undergo background checks, including their immigration status and whether they have a history of child abuse or neglect.

The applicants also agree that the child will attend all immigration hearings, and if the child is to be deported, ensure the child reports to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A new requirement is for all people living in the house where the child will reside to undergo background checks.

(Not) Keeping Data on the Children

In an April 2018 report, the Government Accountability Office was critical of ORR for failure to develop data collections on the welfare of migrant children it had placed in foster homes.

The Resettlement Office was to develop forms for caseworkers who oversaw the children.

“But as of April 2018, it had not developed these forms,” states the GAO report.

The GAO report also was critical of ORR’s failure to develop a plan for collecting and analyzing National Call Center information about the children.

Statistically, the unaccompanied immigrant children are under the age of 17 and most are from Central America, according to ORR.

According to ORR statistics for FY 2017, most of the children were from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and 68 percent were males. By age group, 17 percent were 0-12 years; 13 percent ages 13-14; 37 percent ages 15-16 and 32 percent, age 17.

Last year, HICA fingerprinted about 320 families applying to foster a child.

Alemas said that, with the recent border crackdown, she’s expecting that number to increase.

Among agencies contracted to ORR to oversee the immigrant children are the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, who have provided foster care to unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children for many years: