COLUMBIA — Five of the children separated from their parents at the Mexican border under the Trump administration's controversial zero-tolerance approach to illegal crossings are being fostered by South Carolina families.
The children, ages 7 to 11, have been placed in foster homes over the last month through Lutheran Services Carolinas, a Christian relief organization authorized by the federal government to provide transitional care.
They represent a fraction of the migrant children affected by a policy that is drawing mounting criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Over six weeks in April and May, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution.
The process moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Images of children being held at border facilities in cages and an audio recording of a young child pleading for his "Papa" have sparked public outcry nationwide.
Rebecca Gibson, who coordinates the Columbia-based Christian relief program, said the children they place are among the luckiest. For five days a week, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., they receive educational and therapy services and even go on field trips.
On nights and weekends, they are with their foster families.
"We try to make it a loving environment and make kids comfortable because they have been through a lot. Apart from the trauma of being separated from their families, they've experienced trauma in their home countries, and that's why they're coming to the U.S.," Gibson said.
The nonprofit can serve a maximum of just eight children at a time, largely due to a lack of available licensed foster families living within an hour's drive of Columbia.
Normally, the children arrive within 24 to 36 hours of being caught at the border. Whenever the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement calls to ask if the group can take a child, it has just one hour to respond before federal officials look elsewhere.
How many similar programs exist nationwide is unknown. Messages left with the federal resettlement office were not immediately returned.
The program, which began taking children last September, was designed as an alternative to detention centers for children arriving at the border alone.
"We are the least restrictive environment children can be in" while their cases are being resolved, Gibson said.
So far the Columbia program has reunited 24 children with family members or friends, either in their home country or the United States. On average, that has taken about a month, following background checks and interviews. It's expected to take longer for children taken from their parents at the border.
Detained parents aren't told where their children are sent. The group's first priority when children arrive is to find their mom or dad "so the kids can speak to their parent and the parent can have peace of mind knowing where their child is located," Gibson said.
On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster dismissed criticism of the zero-tolerance policy, saying there will be "harsh remedies" as the nation works to secure its borders. But he supports the children's placement in South Carolina foster homes, his office told The Post and Courier on Tuesday.
"The governor believes that these children who have been put into harm's way by their parents who chose to illegally cross the border with them should have a safe, temporary place to stay until the appropriate legal processes are resolved,” spokesman Brian Symmes said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington are scrambling to find a way to end the forced separations. The House is expected to vote this week on immigration proposals.
South Carolina's two Republican U.S. senators broached the matter via Twitter on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he stands behind Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who Democrats have called on to resign amid the growing pressure on the Trump administration for its zero-toleration stance.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott also issued tweets where he said he disagrees with the practice of family separation but recognized what has become a historically difficult problem to address.
"I do not support a policy of categorically separating children from their parents at the border," Scott said. "Without a doubt, we must secure our border, eliminate loopholes that encourage illegal immigration, and resist attempts to return to 'catch and release.' ... Congress needs to come together to find a path forward. We can and must do better."
Scott's statement came after Graham tweeted his support for how the DHS leader is handling the matter.
"I strongly stand behind @DHSGov Secretary Nielsen and her effort to solve a long-standing problem," Graham tweeted. "She is hard-working, incredibly smart, and passionate. She is the right person at the right time. Her resignation would only serve to make this problem more difficult to solve."
At least 10 Democratic lawmakers have called on Nielsen to resign.
South Carolina's former U.S. attorney, Bill Nettles, was among 70 former U.S. attorneys signing a letter Tuesday to Sessions calling for the policy's end. Nettles, like most of the co-signers, was appointed under President Barack Obama. Beyond lacking compassion, they argued, the policy also squanders Justice Department resources on a crime that has a maximum punishment of six months in jail.
Nettles said he prosecuted illegal entry cases typically only after the undocumented immigrant had committed another crime.
He called it a moral, not a political, issue.
"Is there ever a way we’ll look back on this and say, 'This is something as an American I’m proud of?" he said.
The Associated Press and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.