‘This is an abolitionist struggle’

Two local organizers tell Borderless Magazine just what’s at stake with keeping migrant children shelters open in Chicago.

Above: Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s Free Heartland Kids campaign gather outside the residence of David Sinski’s, Executive Director of Heartland Human Care Services and Vice President of Heartland Alliance, on Dec. 8, 2019 demanding that Heartland Alliance end child detention and stop collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo courtesy of Andrew Anderson/Free Heartland Kids Campaign.

Last year, a series of ProPublica Illinois investigations put a spotlight on this opaque network of shelters run by nonprofit Heartland Alliance contracted through the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to house migrant children in the Chicago area. The team of reporters uncovered accusations of abuse and lax supervision behind closed doors; Heartland Alliance denied all wrongdoing. Ultimately, Heartland Alliance shuttered four of its migrant youth shelters in Des Plaines earlier this year and currently runs five migrant youth shelters across Chicago in Rogers Park, Englewood, Beverly and Bronzeville. Around 3,000 children each year pass through these migrant youth shelters and the vast majority stay one to two months before connecting with family members, according to an online statement from Heartland Human Care Services

Since 2013, Heartland Alliance has received more than $180 million from the federal government to house children in these facilities. The nonprofit received the fourth-highest amount of federal dollars for housing unaccompanied minors since the fiscal year 2015, according to ProPublica Illinois. Many of these children crossed the border alone or were forcibly separated from parents or family members under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security agency that implemented the “zero-tolerance” policy, separated 3,014 children from their families. Tracking was flawed and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers didn’t accurately record possible family relationships between adults and 1,233 migrant children detained between October 2017 and mid-February 2019, an inspector general report concluded.

Borderless Magazine’s Nissa Rhee and Sarah Conway spoke with two local organizers about why they are campaigning against Heartland Alliance to close all migrant youth shelters in Chicago and what they hope to accomplish. 

Marta*, organizer with Little Village Solidarity Network

As told to Nissa Rhee

Marta is a local abolitionist organizer, an immigrant and mother. She has many years experience fighting new immigration detention centers and working within networks of autonomous organizing.

We need to be really, really concerned with a system of detention that has become so normalized and so easily understood as being a shelter. There’s technically what happens and then there is the mythologizing and rebranding of it. Technically, what happens when a young person is apprehended by immigration authorities and they are deemed as not being in the company of an adult who can prove legal custody is that child is officially labeled as Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC). The United States government takes custody of that child and charges that child with immigration violations. 

That means they are issued a Notice to Appear, through which the United States government is ordering you to appear in immigration court to defend yourself against the deportation process that has been issued against you. So whether you’re two years old or six months old or 10 years old, you are issued immigration violations. You’re being charged with something, right? You’re under a kind of prosecution and you are transferred into the custody of the state, initially in custody of Homeland Security. After a certain amount of time, the custody is transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services

The child is not free to leave at any point in this. There’s never a question of should you now go, do you have a place to go? Who can pick you up from here? The custody is transferred and that transfer is assumed to be mandatory. So it’s the mandatory mass detention of any child found under any circumstance that qualifies an Unaccompanied Alien Child. 

The children then get shipped around the country to upwards of about 170 Unaccompanied Alien Child facilities. Investigating the circumstances of the child and their family is the task of these facilities. Not placing them with their families as soon as possible, but investigating their claims that they have families or others who can care for them, who their families are, how they arrived here. Because now the government is the custodian, the families have to try to request the custody and the burden of proof is on the family.

Families cannot claim custody without cooperating extensively with this investigation. For families who are undocumented, this is really terrifying. It’s also hard for them to produce the amount of documentation required. It is a dangerous process.

In addition to the many times in which the children are interviewed and asked questions about themselves and their families, there’s a lot of probing for trauma. Let’s ask this five-year-old if they’ve ever seen a family member get killed, mining for experiences of trauma in a situation that is not a therapeutic relationship, that is not a context that can offer the support needed. This is incredibly dangerous to their lives, right? And yet there’s constant mining for that information because there’s paperwork to be filled out. 

The social service agencies call this “service.” They say, “We have clinicians that are giving them service.” Everything we’ve heard from people on the inside suggests that there’s no way you can call this mental health service when the nature of the relationship is coercive, is investigative, not therapeutic. 

If you look at HHS’s own records, they state that 80 to 90 percent of children that are held in Unaccompanied Alien Children detention centers are released to family members. Now read that backwards: 80 to 90 percent of these children had families to begin with, and families who meet the statist definitions of kinship in according to the US government and who can meet the extreme burden of proof required of them, that’s 80 to 90 percent of these children who were effectively detained as prisoners in facilities of detention. (HHS said in a statement to Borderless Magazine that in the fiscal year 2019, 94 percent of unaccompanied alien children in their care [the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families] were discharged to individual sponsors.)

They did not ask for, nor would benefit from, nor would ever need a facility to house them because they already have places to go and people to receive them. To call these places shelters is meant to suggest that this is something that children need because they have nowhere to go. Calling them unaccompanied is meant to suggest that they have been abandoned by their communities.

So we have to change the language and say, what would happen if we recognize that these children have disappeared from their families? Families are looking for them, they would have found them by now, but they’re not allowed to find out where the children are. Right? The children have been taken from where they were on route to family, and displaced and disappeared. What would happen if we recognized these as lockups and not shelters? We’ve been getting everything wrong about the fundamental nature of this institution. It has been built as a lie.

José reached out to us one day on Facebook. He had been in detention in a Heartland Alliance facility in Rogers Park, and he called it detention. He said that he had heard voices outside, chanting, singing, shouting. He said hearing our voices was very important to him and that motivated him to look us when he would get out so that he himself can be a voice. 

This is an abolitionist struggle. We are not people who think that the cages are ok if they’re a little nicer. Or a border is okay if it’s virtual versus physical. The goal is really to create a world in which these mechanisms and institutions are not normal, they’re not acceptable. 

An easier way to say that is: Rich white people have no borders. They can just travel. Go on vacation. Do what they want. What if poor, dark people around the world could have the same ability to remain in their homelands? To not be displaced? The same kind of free movement that rich white people from the global North enjoy?

We are in Chicago and we’re a major hub nationally for this kind of detention market. If we make a change with Heartland Alliance and the Catholic Archdiocese, the operators here,  it can shift the whole dynamic nationally. It can really make it seem possible to have a national abolitionist movement. We should think about how do we create that safety here? People are desperate. They are sending their children under very difficult circumstances because they’re forced to. These children goto someone in the vast majority of situations. The UAC system is right here in our own backyards. This is our struggle. We cannot just walk by these places every day.

Right now, we are asking people to support José, who is fighting his deportation case and is fighting to be a voice for the other youth who cannot speak publicly. We need to raise a lot of money for his legal support, and we only have a few months to do so.

People can support our work locally as well, we are an all-volunteer group and every dollar helps make copies for flyers, or buy a sheet from a thrift store for a banner. People can invite us to do a workshop for their organization or host an info-session using the materials on our website. Take your friends and go chant, raise your voices so the detained children can hear you – all the addresses of the UAC facilities are on our website.

Several different groups have formed to work autonomously on the issue, it doesn’t take a big group to flyer at a recruiting event, or to chip away at Heartland Alliance’s legitimacy as a do-gooder. We can help you come up with actionable ideas and tactics that are do-able for you. Through our work, we’ve seen people turn their heartbreak into action. They tell us, I chanted outside one of the UAC centers and I saw a little hand at the window. You can see the impact. The silence around child detention has been deafening for such a long time, but you and your two friends can actually make a difference in this issue. 

*Pseudonym used to protect her safety

Dan Ackerman pictured in his home on Dec. 11, 2019. “So much activism is long term,” says Ackerman, “but this is something we could see immediate results with.” Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Dan Ackerman, organizer with Free Heartland Kids campaign

As told to Sarah Conway

Dan is a member of the steering committee of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s Free Heartland Kids campaign which calls for an immediate end to child immigrant detention in the Chicagoland area.  

My first introduction to the Heartland Alliance issue was seeing the Facebook event for last year’s protest at their fundraiser gala. I started to look into the issue and found a couple of articles covering the issue, particularly the ProPublica Illinois story. Their reporting on the network of child detention centers run by Heartland Alliance in the Chicagoland area was kind of ground zero for a lot of people, including myself. Although media interest really started during the summer of the implementation of the family separation policy, Heartland Alliance has been in this industry of detaining immigrant kids since the ‘90s

This year, everyone who disrupted the fundraiser gala wanted to bring more attention to the issue. All the organizations and individuals that came were in agreeance that it’s not good to run a concentration camp-like network in the city of Chicago for immigrant children and being the city we are, we are not going to let the contractors, donors and supporters of Heartland Alliance have a fun time at a fundraising gala without recognizing what is going on behind the closed gates of these shelters. It is good in and of itself to let them know that people are angry at them and that it’s intolerable in the city of Chicago to run detention centers for kids.

Child detention is a local issue. We’ve been told by politicians who we’ve come to for help to abolish child immigrant detention in Illinois that this is a national issue, or this is a Trump administration problem and to leave them alone. They can’t do anything. However, making this a ‘Trump-only issue’ absolves the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations of their actions that led us to today. They all contributed to and built this prison immigration system that is now in the hands of Trump. We don’t need to march against Trump to end these child jails in our city, we need to organize to shut them down entirely and end the practice locally which we believe will reverberate up to eventually ending the practice nationally.

Oftentimes, you’ll hear that we need to make a national change to affect local change. We believe that the exact opposite is true. The only way to affect national change, and ideally global change eventually, is through local changes right here in Chicago. We need to force ICE out of every hole and hollow that they’re hiding in within our city and we need to close the network of immigrant child jails in our backyard.

There have been a ton of campaigns like ours across the country. This is a percolating national movement, partially driven by the fact that national change is so hard to direct without local change. Everything from shutting down the Tornillo Detention Facility for Migrant Teens in Texas to the closure of the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California.

We did months of research where we talked to activists and lawyers who had represented children who sued to leave Heartland Alliance detention centers and other relevant parties we could find. Some of the lawyers we spoke were on the fence or leaning negative on the idea of shutting down Heartland Alliance’s child detention centers. This initially gave us some pause. We thought, you know, maybe we’re wrong about this. But then we started to research local movements around the country that have successfully disrupted the immigration detention system.

The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, where more than 600 migrant children were held over the past 10 years, was shut down this October. An article by Reveal and The Center for Investigative Reporting on that facility does a great job of spelling out the division in the immigrant rights community today. It’s the issue of, do you stay or go on local detention centers. The question is, do you feel that something bad is happening in your backyard so you want to involve yourself in that system and try to control it essentially, which is what Heartland Alliance and their supporters are doing, or do you fight to end it entirely?

We believe that if there are fewer beds, then there are fewer detentions. It is undeniably true that if you shut down one prison, then fewer people will be able to be detained. We know that authorities are trying to round up as many people as possible and if there are fewer beds, then there will be fewer people in detention. People act like shutdowns don’t happen but they do and this is a valid step for us to move forward towards the abolition of child detention centers. 

To serve someone is to do what they ask for; it isn’t, however, to hold someone, especially a child, against their will. A vast majority of these kids at Heartland Alliance centers have somewhere to go tomorrow. They have families waiting for them. Our goal is to get them to that home. There are exceptions, and we recognize that. Some kids are older and without families in the U.S., or there are kids who have experienced abuse, or there may be an LGBT young person who can’t live with their family. However, these are all marginal cases of kids where it isn’t clear where they should go. Our goal is to get current detainees released and to have fewer jails. The children and families who need assistance should get the assistance that they ask for, not be detained against their will and punished for coming here. 

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