Most of the young plaintiffs, who range from ages 11 to 17, have been stuck in children’s shelters or foster care facilities for between four and six months, despite having family members who have applied to be their sponsors.
The lawsuit alleges that thousands of children across the U.S. are languishing in detention for months because of a government crackdown on sponsor vetting. Since June, the Trump administration has required every parent and legal guardian who applies to be a sponsor, as well as members of their household, to be fingerprinted, which has caused processing times to increase from five days to over a month in many cases.
As a result, kids are spending a record amount of time in detention, which the lawsuit says violates immigrant child welfare policies and has caused the children to become anxious, depressed and suicidal.
“There’s no way to minimize how destructive it is for a child to stay detained in these indefinite situations,” said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law and one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “That level of uncertainty is really too much to bear.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Two 11- and 16-year-old brothers identified in the lawsuit by their initials, O.S.O. and E.S.O, have been detained in a New York facility for almost four months. Their mother and sponsor, Blanca Ortiz, had her fingerprints taken on July 24, yet according to the children’s caseworker, they still have not been processed.
The lawsuit describes how the boys are struggling mentally: In mid-October, Ortiz’s 11-year-old told her through tears that he was touched inappropriately by an older child; her 16-year-old, who has learning disabilities, is not receiving special education. Ortiz is so worried about her sons that she can’t sleep at night, according to the filing.
“She is petrified for their safety,” said Paige Austin, a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union who is working on the case. “She has to visit [her sons] and leave at the end of the visits. They don’t understand why.”
Norma Duchitanga’s 17-year-old daughter, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been detained at a children’s shelter in Brownsville, Texas, since Oct. 2. The daughter’s caseworker told Duchitanga, who lives in New York, that getting a fingerprint appointment could take up to two months. The desperate mother drove to Philadelphia where the wait time was shorter, but her fingerprints have still not been processed.
“I’m worried because how can I know that my child is okay? It’s been too long,” said the mother in a statement to her lawyers. “I feel powerless that I’m not able to do more for my daughter, but I’ve done everything possible to cooperate with the case worker.”
It’s just so painful to witness such preventable trauma that our government is imposing on these kids. We are unnecessarily creating these traumatic situations that will have a lifetime of implications.
Neha Desai, National Center for Youth Law
The lawsuit also says that as a result of fingerprinting delays, children are being held for lengthy stays in unlicensed facilities that don’t meet basic child welfare standards. Since June, immigration officials have been transferring immigrant children to a temporary tent city in Tornillo, Texas, where more than 600 of the 1500 kids are waiting for their sponsors’ fingerprints to be processed.
The government said the facility, which is in the middle of the desert and made up of tents that hold 20 children, would house teenagers who were close to being released. But according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the average stay is 59 days. And lawyers who recently visited the site told HuffPost they spoke with children whose detention times ranged from a month to five months ― a worrisome fact, given that kids sleep in cramped quarters and have limited access to education and social services.
Two weeks ago, Desai spoke with a 17-year-old girl who had been detained at Tornillo for two months after having already spent three months in Homestead, another temporary children’s shelter in Florida. Desai says the teen cried while telling her story: Despite having a sponsor who was fingerprinted back in August, immigration officials put her on a plane in early September without telling her she was going to Tornillo.
“It’s just so painful to witness such preventable trauma that our government is imposing on these kids,” said Desai. “We are unnecessarily creating these traumatic situations that will have a lifetime of implications.”
HHS claims that fingerprinting all sponsors will help keep children safe from traffickers. But immigration experts say there were already adequate measures in place to catch criminal sponsors and that the added vetting causes children psychological distress and keeps them out of safe homes.
Austin says that in addition to becoming depressed and suicidal, children languishing in detention for months have begun to distrust the family members who applied to be their sponsors.
“You have kids not knowing what to believe and … it just undoes them over time,” she said. “They suffer not only from being confined [in detention], but also from the illogic and unpredictability of the situation.”