Is This Really What the U.S. Stands For?
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @lopez_wd.
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.