Migrant Children Are Still Being Detained in Chicago

Heartland Alliance describes itself as a human rights and anti-poverty organization; but it operates five child migrant detention centers in the city.

Sabrina Gunter February 11, 2020

Little Village Solidarity Network began protesting Heartland Alliance, a group that detains migrant children in Chicago, in 2018. A crowd of 50 protested outside Heartland’s Chicago gala Oct. 11, 2018. (Photo by Charles Edward Miller)

CHICA­GO — Refrains of Heart­land and ICE, same shit twice” caught the atten­tion of pass­ing cars and pedes­tri­ans Dec. 8, 2019, at the Mal­ibu con­do­mini­ums on Chicago’s lake­front. Around 30 orga­niz­ers from Lit­tle Vil­lage Sol­i­dar­i­ty Net­work (LVSN), Rogers Park Sol­i­dar­i­ty Net­work (RPSN) and Free Heart­land Kids (FHK) demon­strat­ed out­side the home of David Sin­s­ki, vice pres­i­dent of Heart­land Alliance and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Heart­land Human Care Ser­vices. They bran­dished large posters, one with Sinski’s face labeled Deten­tion Lord David Sin­s­ki” in bright red let­ters. Anoth­er read, Your neigh­bor David Sin­s­ki jails kids.”

The ORR contracts all migrant youth detention facilities and requires operators (like Heartland) to collaborate with ICE and Customs and Border Protection.

Heart­land, a Chica­go-based non­prof­it, describes itself as a human rights and anti-pover­ty orga­ni­za­tion; it also oper­ates five child migrant deten­tion centers.

Heart­land detains unac­com­pa­nied alien chil­dren” as iden­ti­fied by the Office of Refugee Reset­tle­ment (ORR), defined as a child who has no law­ful immi­gra­tion sta­tus in the Unit­ed States … and, with respect to whom, there is no par­ent or legal guardian in the Unit­ed States … avail­able to pro­vide care and phys­i­cal cus­tody.” Heartland’s web­site argues that, with­out the super­vi­sion of a respon­si­ble adult, unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren are high­ly vul­ner­a­ble to being mis­led or exploit­ed” — and because of that vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, a sep­a­rate sys­tem of shel­ter care was estab­lished.” A focus is placed on reunify[ing] the chil­dren with their fam­i­lies as soon as possible.”

But accord­ing to a state­ment pub­lished via Truthout in August 2019 by Ramona Ben­itez, a for­mer Heart­land fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion spe­cial­ist, Heart­land detains chil­dren regard­less of whether they have U.S. spon­sors. Ben­itez writes, The chil­dren I inter­viewed knew exact­ly where their par­ents or loved ones were at the time they were picked up by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty … The chil­dren cross the bor­der with names, phone num­bers and address­es of their fam­i­lies in their pockets.”

At the demon­stra­tion, Seph Mozes, 23, an orga­niz­er with FHK (a cam­paign of Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca), quot­ed immi­gra­tion attor­ney Simon San­doval-Moshen­berg over the mega­phone: It takes a hell of a sav­ior com­plex to real­ly believe that a kid in your jail is bet­ter off than being with his family.”

Mozes con­tin­ued, Deten­tion is inher­ent­ly trau­mat­ic, espe­cial­ly for chil­dren … If you’re not free to leave, that’s not a shel­ter — that’s a jail.”

Al, an LVSN orga­niz­er who request­ed anonymi­ty to avoid ret­ri­bu­tion from his employ­er, added, Heart­land mas­quer­ades itself under the rubric of shel­ter and care in order to obfus­cate the extreme duress these chil­dren have to endure.” (LVSN began protest­ing Heart­land in 2018.)

Chil­dren are held in Heart­land facil­i­ties for an aver­age of 56 days. Accord­ing to a Sep­tem­ber 2018 ProP­ub­li­ca report, 27 chil­dren who were in Heartland’s care dur­ing the month of July [2018] … had been held for 200 days or more.” One 17-year-old had been in cus­tody for more than a year and a half. More than a dozen Heart­land chil­dren have run away, and there are grow­ing alle­ga­tions of sex­u­al, phys­i­cal and med­ical abuse, and gen­er­al neglect, prompt­ing fed­er­al and state inves­ti­ga­tions. In 2018 ProP­ub­li­ca report­ed that employ­ees even threat­ened to slow down fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion for mis­be­hav­ing children.

The ORR con­tracts all migrant youth deten­tion facil­i­ties and requires oper­a­tors (like Heart­land) to col­lab­o­rate with U.S. Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) and Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion. As part of the fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion process, oper­a­tors are required to con­duct back­ground checks on spon­sors, as well as col­lect spon­sors’ fin­ger­prints. This infor­ma­tion (which can include immi­gra­tion sta­tus) then pass­es to ICE, mak­ing fam­i­lies fear­ful of depor­ta­tion if they attempt reunification.

Mean­while, child immi­grant deten­tion is a bil­lion-dol­lar indus­try. Heart­land Human Care Ser­vices, which runs the deten­tion cen­ters, received about $47 mil­lion in gov­ern­ment grants in 2014. By 2018, the grants increased to more than $57 mil­lion. As fund­ing for Heart­land deten­tion cen­ters has increased, so have exec­u­tive salaries — David Sinski’s annu­al salary rose from $184,498 in 2014 to $225,952 in 2018.

The orga­niz­ers’ full demands are that Heart­land imme­di­ate­ly cease intak­ing migrant chil­dren; end its con­tract with the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices and ORR to detain migrant chil­dren; release and reuni­fy detained chil­dren with their spon­sors in the Unit­ed States with­out shar­ing spon­sors’ data with ICE; and pledge to use its resources to fight for a true deten­tion-free, depor­ta­tion-free and ICE-free zone in Chicago.

There are exam­ples of suc­cess­ful clo­sures of child deten­tion cen­ters. One migrant child tent camp in Tornil­lo, Texas, was shut down in Jan­u­ary 2019 after mass mobi­liza­tion, result­ing in the release of 2,800 detained chil­dren with­in three weeks. Of these chil­dren, near­ly 90% were released to their spon­sors; the rest were trans­ferred to oth­er facilities.

And in May 2019, pub­lic out­cry led Heart­land to close four of its nine Illi­nois facil­i­ties.

Tab­bi, 33, an orga­niz­er with RPSN (who also request­ed anonymi­ty for fear of ret­ri­bu­tion), explains, We are abo­li­tion­ists — we believe in com­plete free­dom of move­ment and dis­man­tling all forms of incarceration.”

Or, as Mozes summed it up over the mega­phone at the demon­stra­tion: As prison abo­li­tion­ists, we believe that the solu­tion to the deten­tion and depor­ta­tion machine is not to build new jails, but to close the jails that already exist. There is no such thing as a good deten­tion center.”

Sab­ri­na Gunter is a spring 2019 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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