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SAN FRANCISCO - Ten-year-old Leonardo had not seen his mother in years. His hope, as he set out from Guatemala with his aunt and her young daughter, was that they would all be able to reunite with his mother, Emiliana, in California together.
Instead on Feb. 23, he descended an escalator in the Los Angeles airport for the long-awaited reunion alone. After Emiliana finally embraced her son with tears streaming down her face, Leonardo's first question was: "Why aren't Aunt Rosa and my cousin here?"
As President Joe Biden's administration grapples with how to house thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, advocates say ending a long-standing practice of separating children like Leonardo from caretaking relatives would help reduce overcrowding in U.S. government custody.
Under U.S. immigration law, families are narrowly defined as children and their parents or legal guardians. Children separated from grandparents, aunts, older siblings and other relatives are classified as "unaccompanied" and sent to shelters or foster care overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) until they can be released to a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close family member.
Immigrant advocates say the separations are, in many cases, unnecessary. They argue that thousands of children could stay out of the shelter system if they were released with their accompanying relatives to pursue U.S. asylum cases in immigration court.
Since November, a handful of nonprofit groups that work with unaccompanied children have compiled tallies showing that as many as 10-17 percent of children in custody were separated from relatives, according to three people briefed on the data, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss internal estimates.
The numbers have not been made public before and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency told Reuters they do not track such separations.
The White House referred a request for comment on the policy of separating children from relatives to CBP and the Department of Homeland Security, which said the statutory definition of an unaccompanied minor is a child with no parent or legal guardian available to provide care.
About 11,900 children were in HHS shelters and nearly 5,800 children were in border patrol custody as of March 28. To reduce overcrowding, the administration is rapidly expanding emergency influx shelters and surveying military bases to host migrant children.
Immigrant advocacy groups are working on a provision they hope will be included in the upcoming U.S. government spending bill that would fund reception centers where children could remain with non-parent family members and be evaluated by child welfare experts for joint release, according to a draft text reviewed by Reuters.