Brenda Garcia sees her 7-year-old son, Kevin, for the first time in 34 days at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Friday morning. Garcia paid more than $500 to fly the boy to Washington so they could be reunited. Credit Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

By Miriam Jordan

  • July 1, 2018

LOS ANGELES — Marlon Parada, a construction worker in Los Angeles, already was worried when he got an urgent call from his cousin in Honduras, asking if he would agree to take in the cousin’s 14-year-old daughter. She’d been taken from her mother while attempting to cross the border and detained in Houston, he said. She couldn’t be released unless a family member agreed to take her in.

Mr. Parada, an immigrant himself who is supporting his wife and three daughters on $3,000 a month, wondered how he could afford to take on another responsibility. Then he learned that he would have to pay $1,800 to fly Anyi and an escort from Houston to Los Angeles.

“It caught me by surprise when they demanded all that money. I asked them to just put her on a bus, but they wouldn’t,” said Mr. Parada, who scrambled to amass the cash from friends and wired it to the operator of the migrant shelter where Anyi was being held.

But that was only one of the hurdles he would have to surmount to take custody of the girl. Families hoping to win release for the thousands of migrant children being held by federal immigration authorities are finding they have to navigate an exhausting, intimidating — and sometimes expensive — thicket of requirements before the youngsters can be released.

Candidates for sponsorship must produce a plethora of documents to prove they are legitimate relatives and financially capable sponsors, including rent receipts, utility bills and proof of income. Home visits are increasingly common as part of the process. And once those conditions are met, many families must pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in airfare to bring the children home.

“The government is creating impossible barriers and penalizing poverty,” said Neha Desai, director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland.

An estimated 11,000 children and teenagers apprehended after crossing the border are currently housed in up to 100 government-contracted facilities across the country. Their numbers have grown in recent weeks as the Trump administration has imposed a “zero-tolerance” policy on border enforcement, purporting to end the strategy of “catch and release” under which migrants were often allowed to go free pending hearings in the immigration courts.

Under the most controversial part of the new strategy, more than 2,300 children were separated from their families and placed in shelters occupied mainly by young people who had made their way across the border alone. President Trump relented last week and ordered that families be kept together whenever possible, but authorities now are struggling to process the estimated 2,000 separated children still remaining in federal facilities.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has official custody of migrant children under detention and establishes conditions for releasing them, has made it clear that the requirements are intended to make sure children are not released to traffickers, and will be well cared for in their new homes.

In testimony to the Senate in late April, Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of health and human services, said that in assessing a sponsor’s suitability, the agency “evaluates the sponsor’s ability to provide for the child’s physical and mental well-being, but also the sponsor’s ability to ensure the child’s presence at future immigration proceedings.”


Brenda Garcia and Kevin leave Dulles Airport with their family on Friday.CreditRyan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

The requirement for sponsors to pay transportation costs has long been part of the agency’s procedures and was not initiated by the Trump administration, officials said.

Immigrant advocates say that migrant families often have spent their entire savings to reach the United States border, and their relatives in the United States may not have much money, either.

One potential sponsor was rejected recently because authorities decided she could not afford the child’s medication, Ms. Desai said. A mother of two was told that her house was not large enough to accommodate a third child. Another was told that she had to move to a better neighborhood if she wanted to be approved.

A new condition requires that all adults in the household where a migrant child will reside submit fingerprints to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Such a requirement has intimidated many undocumented immigrants, who represent the majority of sponsors but fear being targeted for deportation themselves.

“Previously, people readily identified themselves” to sponsor a child, said Lisa Rivera, managing attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group. But, she added, “This is not an environment where someone is going to call and say, ‘I want to take my child, niece or nephew.’ They have to find someone who has legal status.”

A Guatemalan immigrant in New York dreaded submitting her fingerprints in order to sponsor two teenage family members being detained at a shelter in Texas, but felt she had no choice.

“I wouldn’t even be able to ask someone else to be their sponsor. All my family and friends are undocumented and afraid,” said the woman, who declined to be identified by name because she fears attracting the attention of authorities.

The last straw: She had to borrow money to pay the $2,500 to fly them earlier this year from Texas to New York, where she lives.

“It was a nearly impossible amount for a single mother earning $200 a week,” said Crystal Fleming, the lawyer at the Legal Assistance Group representing the teenagers.

Brenda, a Salvadoran migrant who was separated from her 7-year-old son Kevin at the border on May 27, was charged $576.20 to cover the boy’s airfare from Miami to Virginia. His escort collected the money order at Washington Dulles airport on Friday upon handing over the child to his mother.

“I was shocked that they had to pay for the boy’s airfare,” said Astrid Lockwood, the lawyer for the mother and child, who had been held at a shelter in Florida. Ms. Lockwood said that in a decade of practicing immigration law she had never seen this requirement, but noted that she also had not encountered children placed in facilities thousands of miles from their ultimate destination, as has occurred in recent weeks.

Marlon Parada with Anyi at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times

Under the policy manual of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, sponsors are responsible for paying transportation costs for both the child and any escort, along with fees charged by airlines for handling transport of unaccompanied minors.

The payment requirement was also in place during the Obama administration, though in 2016, when a surge of families crossing the border created large populations in migrant shelters, it was waived. Shelter operators were instructed to pay for transportation to enable families to reunite more quickly, and were then reimbursed by the government, said Bob Carey, who led the refugee resettlement office during the Obama administration.

The thinking was, “It’s counterintuitive to keep a child in care,” he said.

“The human cost incurred aside,” he added, “the financial cost for the government is significant. One day of care could cover transportation costs.”

Each day that a child remains in a facility costs the government upwards of $600 a day, and costs can rise to as much as $1,000 daily if a provider has to absorb new children on short notice, Mr. Carey said.

On a case-by-case basis, immigrant families sometimes get help with transport costs. Nonprofits may help cover the airfare. Sometimes an immigration appellate lawyer DC trusts and other advocates convince a child’s case manager to reduce the travel fee or waive it altogether due to hardship.

A shelter in South Texas asked a Salvadoran woman for $4,000 to fly her niece, 12, and nephew, 10, with an escort to California. They were there a month, until she convinced them that she could not pay, said Fred Morris, president of the San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center, a nonprofit that helped her locate the children. The siblings arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday.

It took Oscar Garcia of Anaheim, Calif., a month to complete the paperwork to sponsor his nephew, Diego, 11, who was held at a facility in southern Texas after crossing the border from El Salvador. As part of the process, Mr. Garcia, a father of three who does remodeling work on homes, sent pictures of his two-bedroom house to the case manager via Whatsapp. He also submitted fingerprints for a background check.

“When everything was done, they told me it would cost $1,400 to bring the boy here,” he recalled. He borrowed $900 from his brother-in-law and depleted his $500 in savings to afford tickets for the boy and an escort. The child landed in Los Angeles in May.

“I didn’t want to leave him stuck there,” said Mr. Garcia.

In the case of the Parada family in Los Angeles, Mr. Parada said both Anyi and her mother had been through a lot in their journey and subsequent detention, and he knew it was important to get the girl out of the shelter as quickly as he could.

Mother and daughter had traveled over land by bus and car to reach the southwest border in early May. After wading through the Rio Grande to reach Texas, they were promptly intercepted by the Border Patrol, Anyi told her family. They were then separated: Anyi’s mother was transferred to a detention center in Seattle; the girl was transported to Casa Quetzal, a shelter for minors in Houston that is operated by Southwest Key, one of the country’s largest shelter operators for minors.

The separation prompted Anyi’s father in Honduras to reach out to his cousin in California.

After compiling dozens of documents and submitting his fingerprints for a background check, Mr. Parada learned that he would have to pay the $1,800 in airfare: one way for the girl, round trip for her escort.

“They notified me a day before her release,” he said. “I had no choice.”


Thank you to our friends and contributors at The Federal Practice Group for their insight into immigration laws and transport fees for migrant children.