Within 72 hours of a child's arrival, the detention staff is supposed call the family members using the phone numbers that the kids arrive with and say: "we have your child, but you can’t come get them, and can’t visit them, see them, or even talk to them until we investigate you"—that means the family member and their entire household has to hand over records, documents, and biometrics (i.e. fingerprints). ORR shares this information with ICE and CPB, who may use it to deport family members. Meanwhile, the child is placed under deportation proceedings (the default assumption of every immigration case) and receive "legal counsel" as a date is set for their trial. While inside, the children’s lives are strictly controlled. They are forced to talk with case workers who must extract information (all of which influences their deportation case and their release to a sponsor) in a way that is therapeutically inappropriate way for children who have often undergone significant trauma. Children who cry or become uncooperative are often medicated without their consent or the consent of the parent. Older ones try to refuse consent verbally and are told that if they refuse, their processing for release will be delayed. They are disappeared from their families, with no visitation and 20 minutes of phone access per week. They perform unpaid labor to maintain the centers. Some children resist inside. They frequently refuse food and demand to see a parent; they don't have the language to say so, but these are hunger strikes. They refuse to cooperate in activities or refuse to leave their rooms. Some try to run away. All incidents of non-cooperation are recorded in the child's case file and impact the deportation proceedings. Once a "sponsor" is approved for release, this sponsor is called and told they can retrieve the child. "Sponsors" are forced to pay all expenses for the transportation for the child. This includes last-minute flights including round-trip tickets for Heartland Alliance’s required “escort"--prices that often exceed $1,000 depending on where the child is flying to and if there are multiple children in the family.
A child's length of detention is widely variable. When an "unaccompanied" child is first apprehended by ICE/CPB, the Flores Agreement of 1997 states that the child can only be detained in ICE/CPB custody for 72 hours before being transferred to an ORR-run facility such as Heartland's, although this is often not enforced. At Heartland, children can be detained anywhere from weeks to years depending on how long the government decides to spend investigating their case before placing them with a sponsor. Some teenagers "age out" upon turning 18 and are transferred to adult ICE facilities. The length of stay also varies in response to political pressure. During moments of heightened media attention or overcrowding, many children's cases are suddenly expedited, undermining the myth that detention is necessary and done solely for the safety of the children.
According to yearly congressional reports of the ORR, more than 90 percent of children who are detained are eventually released to family. Read backwards, this means that over 90 percent of children have families and loved ones in the US who are waiting to receive them; their detention is not a vehicle for reunification, it is a vehicle of separation, investigation and prosecution. By holding them, detention facility operators enable the anti-immigrant federal government to investigate their families, gather information on them, and process them for deportation. Social service agencies running these facilities get to play the hero for reuniting families only because the government separates families in the first place -- which thse agencies profit from.
The situation of children airlifted from Afghanistan as well as child refugees arriving from the Ukraine is different; these young children have a different legal status called Unaccompanied Alien Refugee; they are paroled into the US and are not being actively processed for deportation. Many of these young children do not have families or loved ones waiting to receive them. They are also not subject to mandatory detention, and are technically supposed to be housed in less restrictive facilities, with older teenagers eligible for independent living.
When the children are released to a "sponsor" they still are not free. They still face their asylum trial. Some win their cases for asylum. Some do not and are deported. And during the time that they await trial, they are not necessarily unified with their community. Many times the "sponsor" they are released to is the legal guardian they were trying to reunite with in the first place. Sometimes not. Sometimes it's a different family member or family friend, if their legal guardian was deemed unacceptable (or even deported) by the US government. Some children are even placed into the US foster care system and may never reunite with their family again. The "family reunification" is at the discretion of the US government, which continues its colonizing pattern of breaking families and kidnapping the children of communities of color, often under the disguise of "rescuing" them, in order to serve its own needs. Families go through enormous trauma and terror trying to reclaim their children from the US government, and some never succeed.