Is This Really What the U.S. Stands For?

by Anonymous

Image issued by the federal government of detention facility in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. (US Customs and Border Protection)

A  whistleblower at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) published  this letter anonymously on June 20, 2018, World Refugee Day, in Latino Rebels. Dr. Lauren Heidbrink, Assistant Professor of Human Development at California State, Long Beach and co-founder and editor of Youth Circulations, provides additional commentary below.


I  work for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) with children who are  coming to live here in the United States. The process goes like this:  when a child comes to the United States by crossing the border and gets  apprehended by immigration officers, he or she eventually comes to live  in one of the many shelters across the United States funded by ORR.

ORR  is responsible for providing basic care to the child, such as food,  clothes, caretaker supervision, shelter, school, medical care and  love/care/respect. At the same time, ORR undergoes a process of finding a  sponsor with whom the child wishes to live in the United States. This  sponsor is usually a family member, and ORR is responsible to verify  that the sponsor’s home is a safe place for the child to live. For  instance, the sponsor should be able to provide adequate supervision,  access to a nearby school, parenting capability, as well as any basic  care needs for the child.

ORR  is a good organization doing good work, even though it resides in the  midst of a broken and inhumane system. Despite all the hardships within  the immigration process, I have witnessed incredible care and support  shown to children within the ORR system. I have been proud to play a  supportive role in the children’s lives as they continue on their  journey to live in the United States.

However,  things are changing. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is turning its  back on the children for whom they are responsible.

Right  now, ORR is working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS,  which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) in a way  that will very likely lead to an increase in deportations and more  children being stuck in government programs. ORR signed an agreement  with DHS to provide them with the personal information of potential  sponsors for the children with whom I work. These sponsors are often  undocumented themselves. The children they hope to sponsor are often  their biological children, nieces, nephews or family friends.

Now  our case managers are obligated to inform the sponsors that by  sponsoring a child, they have to give their personal information and  location to DHS, and therefore, to ICE as well. If they surrender their  personal information to ICE, they could potentially get deported.

Personally,  I believe that the deportation of sponsors is a very possible outcome. I  cannot understand why else DHS would be asking for their information.  According to DHS, the purpose is to safeguard against the children being  sent to would-be human traffickers, but that’s surely a lie. We already  do a very large amount of checks, including background checks,  fingerprints, and continual case management services. This is all done  in order to prevent a situation such as human trafficking from  occurring, and the involvement of ICE does not appear to add any extra  protections to the process.

This  situation provides a moral conundrum for the sponsors: either they  abandon a child who is placing their hope in them, or they put  themselves at a high risk for deportation, in which case the child would  be left alone in the United States without their family, unless they  are deported as well.

There’s  more: sponsors will inevitably be far less likely to sponsor children  with this new policy in place, and foster programs usually have a long  waiting list. This means that there will not be any open beds in the  ORR-run shelters because kids won’t be leaving. Meanwhile, children  continue to cross the border every day.

The  border is already filled with children waiting to get moved into a  shelter. Do you know what’s happened in the past when ORR shelters have  been full? Children get sent to military bases which have been opened up  as emergency “shelters.” This practice, which began during the Obama administration,  has been rekindled under the Trump administration. Sleeping on cement  floors, aluminum foil for blankets and very minimal food for the  children.

Is this really what the United States stands for?

My  coworkers and I want to fight back, but as employees of ORR, our hands  are tied. That’s why I’m reaching out to the community. I view it as my  moral responsibility as a citizen, but more simply, as somebody who  cares about children.

Family  separation is a form of child abuse. While this may or may not be true  in the legal sense, research shows (and every counselor agrees) that the  separation of children from their parents has a devastating emotional and developmental impact on a child. This practice is a new form of family separation which we  will now be witnessing, in addition to the well-publicized family  separations which have been happening at the border.

Please  share this letter with your community, or post articles yourself, or if  you can think of any other way to help, please do it. Call your  representatives. Make sure the Attorney General for your state is aware  that this is happening, and aware of your strong opposition. Talk to  your friends and family and spread the word, because we’re grasping at  straws. We need media attention and massive pushback.


The  author wishes to remain anonymous for protection. This letter was  obtained and edited by William Lopez, Ph.D, MPH. Lopez is a postdoctoral  fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and  National Center for Institutional Diversity. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @lopez_wd.

Editor’s Note

As I worked with William Lopez to publish this letter in Latino Rebels and IMM Print, we agreed that it is our hope that this whistleblower’s account, and others like it,  will encourage others who are working within the United States’s  complex network of agencies, private contractors, and non-governmental  organizations (NGOs) that coordinate immigration enforcement efforts to  speak out.

We  also hope that it may prompt us all to question the histories and  mechanisms of this country’s “processing” of migrants more deeply.

Dr.  Lauren Heidbrink, Assistant Professor of Human Development at  California State, Long Beach and co-founder and editor of Youth  Circulations, provides the following crucial comments in response to the  above letter. Based upon her research in Migrant Youth, Transnational Families, and the State: Care and Contested Interests, an ethnography of unaccompanied children’s experiences within ORR facilities, Heidbrink writes:

I  appreciate ORR staff are finally speaking out, especially when they  sign confidentiality agreements restricting their ability to share their  experiences with the public. While their voices and the voices of their  non-government organization (NGO) subcontractors are critical to  understanding how children move through this kafka-esque system, I  continue to take issue with how benign they depict “care” in these facilities.
Indeed,  ORR and NGO staff provide for children’s everyday needs such as food,  shelter and basic healthcare. Yet, when I speak with young people held  in these facilities (either as part of my research or as guardian ad  item (GAL), unaccompanied youth experience this institutional care as  violence. Young people describe these facilities euphemistically called  shelters as “lost time,” “traumatic,” and “a nightmare I can’t escape,”  as places where “I am treated like a criminal . . . a threat” and where  “I have no rights.” Indeed, a recent investigation on the abusive treatment in some of ORR facilities only underscores this violence.
In  my 15 years researching in and beyond these facilities, the national  human rights organizations that decry the mass detention of adults by  private prison companies while caring for youth in their facilities have  been silenced by their “uneasy alliance” with the state. When asked why  they do not speak out, front line facility staff indicate they signed  confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from talking with  reporters, and more recently, researchers. Program administrators  indicate they will lose funding and the jobs of their staff if they  complain too forcefully or publicly. Executive Directors articulate a  fear of returning to the days of Immigration and Naturalization Services  (INS) in which children were commingled in juvenile detention or even  adult facilities. The irony, as one advocate remarked, is “As much as we  criticize ORR, we are still saying that putting kids in their custody  is what we want. On the one hand, we are finding all of these problems  and abuses, but on the other we say, ‘Keep putting kids in your [ORR]  custody because it is better than ICE.’ It is all a little crazy.”
While  I appreciate this whistleblower’s courage to speak up and resolutely  encourage others to do the same, there likewise must be some critical  self-reflection and recognition that ORR and NGOs are not only  contributing to this broken system; they are an integral part of it.  Take for example, Southwest Keys’ renovated Walmart facility, which has  recently come under public scrutiny. It is an ORR subcontract, along  with over 100 other facilities in 14 states. The well-intentioned yet  misguided humanitarian conceptions of “care” of ORR and NGO  subcontractors have become indecipherable from the state violence we see  inflicted by adults in for-profit, private adult and family facilities.
There  are plenty of well-intentioned people who work for ORR and their NGO  subcontractors, many of them friends and colleagues, but we must press  for transparency and accountability across the board. We must push for  the deinstitutionalization of immigrants and people of color. Full stop.  Even with best intentions, ORR and NGOs must be held accountable,  alongside ICE and CBP, for the traumas they are inflicting.

IMM Print is committed to encouraging and working to protect anyone wishing to  share their story of immigration enforcement violence. Contact Tina  Shull at or for more  information.