The Heartless Alliance

How Nonprofit Contracts with DHS Extend Family Separations Far Beyond the Border

Kristen Kelley

Immigrant kids don’t need gentler jails. They need us to end detention as a response to migration.  


The United States’ undeniably cruel immigrant detention centers have been gaining critical visibility over the past few years of Trump’s administration. The criminalization and incarceration of immigrants was common immigration policy well before Trump took office, however he has exacerbated conditions by waging an all-out war on immigrants as a key feature of his political platform. Along with funding for his ridiculous border wall and increased staffing of border patrol and ICE, he has proposed a massive increase in spending to fund detention centers by an additional $3.1 billion and an additional $4 billion on “care” for unaccompanied migrant children. 

In an immigration system cut from the same fabric as the US prison-industrial complex, what exactly does so-called care for migrant youth look like? In Chicago, it means child detention centers rebranded as “shelters” run by the nonprofit conglomerate Heartland Alliance. Heartland currently has five child detention centers across Chicago, located in Beverly, Englewood, Bronzeville, and two in Rogers Park. These centers are nondescript, almost as if Heartland wanted to keep them as a shameful secret hidden in plain sight; often neighbors are not aware that these centers are located in their communities. 

Heartland Human Care Services, the branch of Heartland Alliance that operates these detention centers claims to run a “humanitarian model of shelters” and offers a detailed comparison of how their version of incarcerating children is much cozier than detention centers at the border. It is true that the horrific conditions in which children were separated from their parents and locked in cages, that sparked outrage in the summer of 2018 following Trump’s zero tolerance policy, may not be what you will find inside of Heartland’s detention centers in Chicago. But Heartland’s alternative still holds children in its centers against their will. Forcibly detaining migrant children actively works to keep children separated from their families.

“Research shows that over ninety percent of these kids have family or sponsors in the US, Heartland has attested to that,” says Marvin Venis Benjamin, who is cochair of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Immigrant Rights Committee and a member of the Free Heartland Kids Campaign. “We can’t let the nonprofits dictate what detention looks like, we can’t let them say it’s ethical just because it’s more ethical than what’s at the border. We are here to advocate for the children.”

On January 31st, the day before Heartland Alliance was set to renew its contract with the Department of Health and Human Services, Free Heartland Kids campaign activists delivered a petition with 2,700 signatures to the Heartland Alliance headquarters. The petition listed the campaign’s demands which are that Heartland Alliance:

  1. “Immediately cease intaking migrant children into their detention centers;
  2. Immediately end their contract with the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to detain migrant children;
  3. Release and reunify the migrant children in their physical custody to their sponsors and families in the United States as soon as possible, without sharing their sponsors’ biometric data, documentation status, or other personal information with ICE or with any federal agency that shares information with ICE;
  4. Pledge to use their resources and power to fight for a true detention-free, deportation-free, and ICE-free zone in Chicago.”

Activists with the campaign—alongside community groups Little Village Solidarity Network, Rogers Park Solidarity Network, and Rising Tide Chicago—persistently pressed these demands leading up to Heartland’s contract renewal, organizing weekly canvasses outside of Heartland HQ, rallying outside the detention centers, and even a protest outside of Heartland Alliance’s annual gala in November. In December, they made their message loud and clear by protesting outside of the Lakeshore Drive condominium home of David Sinski, vice president of Heartland Alliance and executive director of Heartland Human Care Services. 

Heartland Alliance has defensively acknowledged the protests and Sinski himself even sat down with FHK organizers in May of last year to discuss the detention centers. Even amid growing opposition from the communities in which the detention centers are based, Heartland Alliance still planned to renew its three-year contract with DHHS to continue incarcerating migrant children. Heartland’s contracts with DHHS to earn Unaccompanied Alien Children program grants made up about 25 percent of Heartland Alliance’s total revenue in 2017, and its renewal this year will bring in $47 million annually for the next three years, despite the number of detainees dropping from nearly 400 to only 92. Nationally, Heartland is the fourth-largest recipient of federal funding to detain migrant children, and its executives are taking this money straight to the bank. Evelyn Diaz, Heartland Human Care Service’s President and CEO earned $362,445 in 2017, with an additional $30,000 bonus. 

Heartland puts families in the position of having to choose between their safety and having their children come home. 

Heartless Practices

The national narrative surrounding “unaccompanied” children implies that they do not have anywhere to go or anyone who can take care of them. This is overwhelmingly not the case. The majority of youth in the Unaccompanied Alien Children program have contact information for family who can sponsor them in the United States. This was clearly demonstrated when public pressure forced Heartland Alliance to close two of its shelters in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 2019. Over 90 percent of the children were reunified with family members while the few remaining were relocated to other centers across Chicago. This was also the case with Tornillo Detention Center in Texas, which shut down after consistent pressure from activists and demands by the non-profit that operated the camp that both the children and their families not be put at risk of deportation. As background check procedures were loosened for the children’s families, and safe space was made for family members to come forward, the kids were quickly returned home.

Heartland’s spate of scandals demonstrate that the practice is a continuation of, not a contrast to, the obviously punitive policy of incarceration as a response to migration.

Today Heartland Alliance’s website boasts an extensive list of services. But Heartland didn’t seek out public attention for its detention program. It was primarily through Little Village Solidarity Network’s efforts that the existence of their child detention centers in Chicago became a focus of public outcry when the community activist network started organizing against conditions inside what they call Heartland’s “baby jails” about two and a half years ago. At first just a few former Heartland staff and community religious groups began speaking up. Then LVSN began working to create space for anyone who experienced any aspect of the child detention centers, whether it be families, staff, or the children themselves, to be heard and believed about their experience. 

While Heartland has tried to save face by making the conditions in their detention centers sound reasonable, they have been under investigation several times by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, including for sexual assault of a child by a staff member, child labor violations (scrubbing toilets with their bare hands), and children running away from the facilities. There have also been reports of children being sedated when they are difficult to control. 

These harms are not accidental but integral to the role Heartland Alliance is playing in further traumatizing children who have been displaced from their homes and traveled an often dangerous and long journey to the United States just to be separated from their families. Incarceration is traumatic no matter how humane they pretend the conditions to be, at the end of the day Heartland is taking away children’s freedom and agency and providing ICE the tools it needs to keep them separated from their families.

Through its thin humanitarian cover, Heartland Alliance is directly enabling ICE to detain migrant children. By extending the capacity for the detention of children, Heartland has embedded itself in ICE and border patrol’s project of terrorizing immigrant families. Cooperating directly with ICE means Heartland Alliance is also sending a message that the organization is okay with the existence and practices of ICE. Despite its claims to “vehemently oppose the criminalization of children and families as a result of government immigration policies,” Heartland staff become the lead investigators against migrant children who face prosecution and deportation proceedings. 

Ironically, Heartland Alliance also provides many necessary services for immigrants and refugees, including legal assistance, case management, and mental health support. However, its contractual responsibilities toward ICE and ORR subjects the family members of its detainees to increasingly intrusive and intimidating procedures to gain custody of their own loved ones. Heartland cooperates with ICE’s policy of requiring extensive documentation and fingerprinting from the children’s sponsors. Heartland then shares this information with ICE, putting undocumented household members at risk and putting families in the position of having to choose between their safety and having their children come home. 

Through contractual obligation with ICE, Heartland forces families attempting to be reunified with their children to cooperate with an invasive investigation by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), in which, in addition to collecting biometric information about household members, the family is responsible for providing all of their own documentation, consenting to a home inspection and participating in follow-up surveillance. This information is then accessible to ICE and border patrol through a memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by ORR, ICE, and Customs and Border Patrol in 2018, which mandates the continuous information-sharing about the child and their families.

According to a study co-published by Heartland’s own National Immigrant Justice Center (which also controversially acts as the only legal representation for the children) the MOA “also requires ORR to report to DHS a broad range of information on children in its custody, converting ORR from a child welfare agency into more of a law enforcement body.” ICE then runs both a background check and an immigration status check on all household members. Immigration status does not necessarily disqualify families from reunification, however, the investigative process assisted by Heartland exposes all household members to the risk of detention and deportation.  This collusion puts intact families at risk and places them in the position of having to choose between their safety and their children coming home.

If the child is approved to be relocated to their family, they usually bear the financial burden of paying for the flight for both the child and a Heartland employee to chaperone. There have been reports of Heartland higher-ups taking advantage of the opportunity of a free flight to reach vacation destinations across the United States. 

Cooperation between Heartland and ICE also occurs when the youth age out of the center on eighteenth birthdays, by ICE agents arrival, generally the day of, to take the kids into ICE custody. It is then up to an ICE agent’s discretion if a child will wait out the remainder of their deportation case in an adult detention center. By cooperating with all of these procedures, Heartland Alliance is directly contributing to the prolonging of family separation, and therefore increasing the already high chances that these children will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It is controversial to say that Chicago is truly a sanctuary city due to the     carve-outs that exist within its ‘welcoming city’ ordinance. Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to remove these holes, but has since backpedaled on her commitment to protecting immigrant communities from ICE. In February, the Trump administration announced the deployment of militarized Customs and Border Protection (CPB) tactical units into sanctuary cities to assist in ICE operations. The deployment of border patrol agents in sanctuary cities is a violent assault in Trump’s war of terror on immigrants, and we have quickly seen how CPB exists to perpetuate violence not only at the border, but in other sanctuary cities. By participating in and profiting from the US deportation machine, Heartland Alliance is actively enabling these government agencies to terrorize the very people it claims to help. 

National Context

Though nonprofits like Heartland Alliance market themselves as the ethical alternative to child detention centers, this is a dangerous depiction of child detention. Marta, an activist from LVSN elaborates:

“This [child detention] is a very particular form of incarceration in that it presents itself as its own solution and [claims] that it exists for the safety and protection of the people inside. However, since 2003 about 340,000 children have been detained in the UAC system. They are needlessly held and subjected to trauma, and their families are put under investigation. There is a colossal impact that hides behind these small looking facilities.” 

Heartland Alliance’s Unaccompanied Children program directly enables DHS and ICE to continue to criminalize immigrants and incarcerate migrant children. It is necessary to change the narrative of these detention centers being called shelters because, as Marta from LVSN points out, “We must refuse to let this system disguise itself as a victory for immigrants. We have forced Heartland Alliance to come out of their place where they could operate in plain sight. We have challenged their language of being saviors.” There is no such thing as an acceptable form of detention when we are fighting for a world without borders or prisons.

There is no such thing as an acceptable form of detention when we are fighting for a world without borders or prisons.

While the United States has a dark history of incarcerating immigrants, children included, the growing normalcy of contracts with private agencies, including nonprofits, to take the burden off of government agencies has ensured that they can sustainably detain the maximum number of people for the longest possible periods of time. These private facilities create a loophole for the time restrictions placed on detaining migrant minors as mandated by the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement. With an increase in contracting of child detention between private agencies and DHS under the Obama and Trump administrations, the number of children being held each year has increased by more than six-fold since the UAC program was started in 2003 as a reaction to increased border policing and the Homeland Security Act implemented the previous year. 

Activists in Chicago will continue the fight to shut down Heartland Alliance’s detention centers for the empowerment of both our communities in Chicago and nationally. Successfully stopping Heartland Alliance from running these detention centers would have a national impact that would show that it is possible to stop the detention of immigrants and children, even when that detention looks different in different places. This will provide powerful support and solidarity for those organizing against detention across the country.

Kristen Kelley is a founding member of Chicago’s chapter of the Coalition to Close Concentration Camps.