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Zero Tolerance: Inside the Secretive Network of Immigrant Youth Shelters in Illinois

Here is all of ProPublica Illinois’ local reporting on the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ newsletter. Sign up for weekly updates here.

This week, ProPublica’s reporting on the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism (and ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier won a Pulitzer for her amazing feature reporting on MS-13).

We encourage you to read all of ProPublica’s zero-tolerance reporting, but we’d also like to take this opportunity to recap our work on immigrant shelters in Illinois, reported by Melissa Sanchez, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa Eldeib.

Last summer, we learned that dozens of immigrant children and teens separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border had been held in a secretive network of shelters in the Chicago area. There were 11 shelters, nine run by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, in mostly nondescript buildings in suburban Des Plaines and Chicago. Neighbors and even aldermen often didn’t know about them. “I saw those kids playing soccer,” Alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who represents the 21st Ward, said. “I had no idea who they were.”

Read: “Hidden in Plain Sight”: Hundreds of Immigrant Children and Teens Housed in Opaque Network of Chicago-Area Shelters

Twitter thread on this investigation:


Documents and interviews revealed allegations of abuse, threats and inappropriate sexual relationships inside the shelters. At least 10 children had run away in recent years.

In one case, two girls at the facility in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood ran away while on a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in March 2016. One of the girls was supposed to be individually supervised because she had been cutting herself. Two staff members, including a driver, were on the museum trip supervising 10 girls. The staff was distracted, and the two girls ran off. One girl was found. It’s not clear what happened to the second girl. Heartland officials have declined to address specific incidents, citing the privacy of the children. But they said that the incidents “represent highly rare occasions,” and that they take “swift and appropriate action,” reporting all incidents to state and federal authorities.

Read: Records Reveal “Lax” Supervision, Sexual Activity at Chicago-Area Shelters Housing Immigrant Children

Twitter thread on this investigation:


As we continued reporting, one truth became abundantly clear: The longer children are detained, the more they struggle. We learned that older teens lived in fear of turning 18, when immigration officials would take them into custody, often on their birthday. A 17-year-old went on a hunger strike. A 16-year-old said he wanted to “quitarme la vida,” or “take my life away.” We also learned that the time children spent inside the shelters was getting longer. The average length of stay nationally in fiscal year 2017 was 34 days. It grew to 57 days in June 2018 amid the Trump administration’s border crackdown that divided families, federal officials confirmed.

Read: As Months Pass in Chicago Shelters, Immigrant Children Contemplate Escape, Even Suicide

Twitter thread on this investigation:


By Sept. 10, 2018, seven children out of 99 placed here after being separated from their families still hadn’t been reunited with their parents. One of them, a 12-year-old boy named Erick — in custody nearly four months after immigration officials took him from his father — became so depressed that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a week, according to the records. We reported on the children and families that had been reunited, too. We published letters one 11-year-old from Guatemala wrote her mother, who was in adult immigrant detention. Destinee spent five weeks at a Heartland shelter in Bronzeville in May and June 2018.

Read: Here’s What Happened to the 99 Immigrant Children Separated From Their Parents and Sent to Chicago

Twitter thread of Destinee’s letters:


Last month, in March 2019, Heartland Alliance announced plans to close its four Des Plaines shelters and add staff, training and other resources at its remaining five facilities in the Chicago neighborhoods of Bronzeville, Rogers Park, Englewood and Beverly. According to an internal memo we obtained, Heartland officials decided to shutter the Des Plaines facilities after an internal review and listening sessions with staff in the chaotic aftermath of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration crackdown.

Read: After Controversy, Heartland to Close Four Illinois Shelters for Immigrant Youth


And, because we like to be transparent about how we do our jobs, our reporters on these investigations wrote about how they penetrated this secretive system.

We are always looking for more information — and you can help. If you or anyone you know works in the detention system for immigrant minors or has something else to share with us, please get in touch. Write us at [email protected].

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