Thursday marks the court-ordered deadline for the Trump administration to reunite the thousands of immigrant families it forcibly separated earlier this year, but more than 900 children will not be returned to their parents — either because their parents were deported and cannot be located, are undergoing further investigation, have an alleged criminal record, or haven’t been identified at all.
Attorneys working on the ground with the families described a reunification process marked by chaos, fear and frustration, with parents struggling to find out whether they are eligible for reunification and reportedly facing pressure from ICE officials to sign papers renouncing their asylum claims.
“There is profound trauma and confusion about this process, with many not knowing when or if they would ever see their children again,” said Royce Murray with the American Immigration Council, whose lawyers have met with more than 150 detained parents in the El Paso, Texas area over the past few days.
On conference calls and in Capitol Hill press conferences on Thursday, attorneys working with the immigrant families and lawmakers who have recently visited them in detention shared stories of parents and children who, despite the court deadline, may endure separation for many weeks or months to come.
“We’ve been working with two Central American children, ages 9 and 14, who were taken from their mother and held in the Cayuga Center in New York by the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” Christie Turner with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), another legal group working with the separated children, told TPM. “On Wednesday, they were transferred to be reunified with their mother who was at a detention facility in Texas. But our staff received communication yesterday that the mother had already been deported early that morning, before the children arrived. We are not receiving any further information about what is happening, whether the children have also been deported or are in detention. We have no idea where they are.”
Michelle Brané, with the Women’s Refugee Commission, which has been interviewing parents at the Dilley detention center outside of San Antonio, Texas, claimed that her team of attorneys has observed several reunifications gone awry, further traumatizing the kids involved.
“We are seeing cases where children are moved across the country to be reunited with their parents, often arriving at very late hours,” she said. “They have then waited and waited to be reunified, only to be told reunification could no longer happen. Then they are transported in tears the whole way back to the shelter.”
Even when reunification does take place, it can be a painful experience, according to the attorneys and Democratic lawmakers who have visited the shelters.
“What we saw was absolutely horrifying,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) of her recent trip to detention centers near Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. “We spoke to mothers in cages who said they were only allowed to see their children for one hour each day. All children over 10 years old are held in an entirely different area. And we heard a mother tell us how her relationship with her 8-year-old daughter would never be the same again, because immigration officials lied to the daughter and told her her mother had abandoned her and she would live in a shelter until she turned 18. When they were first reunited, her daughter wanted nothing to do with her. This truly is state sponsored violence and child abuse.”
Of the 914 parents the Trump administration has deemed “ineligible” for reunification, more than 450 were deported without their children. Trump administration officials told Politico that the vast majorities of parents in that situation were never given the option to either have their children deported with them or remain behind in the U.S. More than 100 others signed papers waiving their right to be reunified with their children, but the American Civil Liberties Union submitted extensive sworn testimony on Wednesday alleging that few if any understood what they were agreeing to, and claiming that many felt “coerced” and “intimidated” into signing the forms.
Now, lawyers and advocacy groups face the daunting task of finding the deported parents.
“Because they were fleeing violence and persecution in the first place, they in all likelihood cannot return to where they were living before,” Turner said. “They are essentially in hiding, so they will be very difficult to contact.”
The ACLU and the Trump administration will be back in court Friday afternoon to debate what should happen to the hundreds of families deemed “ineligible” for reunification.