There’s been a spike in Central American fathers and their children crossing the US border illegally over the last seven months, BuzzFeed News has learned. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official confirmed the increase, which human rights activists say is the unintended byproduct of the Department of Homeland Security’s successful push to stop the flow of women and children across the border.
A DHS official would not say how many father-led families have been detained since March, or how many of those families have since been released, but the official acknowledged that the department is releasing some. Activists say that’s because there isn’t space in facilities to house all the father-led families detained, so Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are forced to let hundreds of them go each week.
“We see as many fathers with children as pregnant women or moms with kids. It used to be so rare,” said Teresa Cavendish, the operations director at Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which operates short-term shelters for immigrants released by ICE.
An ICE official acknowledged the agency has seen a significant increase in fathers with children since the beginning of March, noting that 28 of the 37 families being held at the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, are led by fathers. Berks, which can house 96 individuals, is the only detention center in the country that accepts male-led families.
Although DHS has begun a push to expand immigration detention capacity, so far those new detention centers would only house adults.
In response to a wave of mothers with children fleeing gang violence in Central America, the Obama administration in 2014 began housing detained women and children at its Artesia, New Mexico, facility, and fast-tracked the completion of two new family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.
Those facilities opened up more than 3,500 beds and greatly expanded ICE’s ability to detain mothers and their children while their cases worked through immigration court.
At the same time, the administration launched an aggressive advertising campaign in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala aimed at discouraging mothers with children from coming to the US illegally. Although many of the ads focused on the dangers of attempting to migrate north, they also included warnings that mothers and children would be jailed and ultimately deported.
Although those efforts appeared to work, with the flood of families and children subsiding by 2016, the violent conditions that caused them to flee remained.
The Obama-era policies did nothing to address “the central issue … the reality for these families that they are having to leave, especially with their children,” said Ruben Garcia, the founder of Annunciation House, an El Paso–based nonprofit that helps undocumented immigrants released by ICE. Garcia told BuzzFeed News that Annunciation House had also seen a surprising jump in father-led families among its clients.
According to Garcia, he gets a call almost every day from ICE agents looking to place fathers or other male relatives with children at Annunciation House.
In late August, for instance, Garcia says an ICE agent called him, asking if he had a wheelchair. The agent explained that a Honduran man had recently been taken into custody, along with his 5-year-old quadriplegic niece. The uncle had carried her the entire way to the border, the ICE agent told Garcia.
With no way to house and care for them, ICE needed to find someplace for the family to stay and turned to Garcia for help. Garcia provided a wheelchair and helped arrange housing for the man and his niece while their immigration cases are decided.
Garcia believes this spike in male-led families could be due to ICE’s infrastructure. Because ICE only has one facility that can take father-led families, and because many immigration cases take years to resolve, the families are almost always released if they meet basic criteria, including not posing a risk to the community, not being a flight risk, and having relatives to live with or having sponsorship by a church group or resettlement organization. Garcia believes immigrants — and the smugglers paid to bring them to the US — might see this as a way to cross the border but avoid long stints in detention.
As a result, groups like Annunciation House have seen a significant uptick in the number of fathers with children being released to them, so much so that on any given day they outnumber all other immigrants, according to Garcia. “Eighteen months ago, two years ago, we seldom saw dads with kids,” Garcia said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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