President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that he said would prioritize keeping migrant families together while maintaining Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative for families, including those seeking asylum, who are apprehended at the border.
It’s unclear how exactly the executive order will affect family separations in practice, especially considering a Justice Department official’s admission that the Flores settlement, which limits the time children and families can be detained, still governs migrant detention policy.
One thing is for sure, though: The government has not put forward any concrete plan for reuniting the thousands of families it has already separated under the “zero tolerance” policy. And Trump did not address the issue in his executive order.
A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which takes custody of adults after they complete their criminal proceedings, gave a vague statement to the Daily Beast on the issue Tuesday.
“When parents are removed without their children, ICE, [the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the sub-agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of children separated from their families], and the consulates work together to coordinate the return of a child and transfer of custody to the parent or foreign government upon arrival in country, in accordance with repatriation agreements between the U.S. and other countries,” the spokesperson said.
The Daily Beast said the Department of Homeland Security had “conceded that parents have been deported without their children,” in the publication’s words.
That may be putting it lightly.
Last week, Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told TPM that it wasn’t clear to her, nor to parents the organization had spoken to who’d been separated from their children, “what this procedure is” for reunification.
“It’s not just that they’re getting separated,” she said. “It’s that no one is telling these parents where their kids are, what sort of care they’re getting, when they’re going to see them again.”
A week later, not much appears to have changed: An ICE spokesperson told BuzzFeed Monday that “reunification typically does not occur until the removal stage of the process,” but by then, parents and children are often in different states, having already been separated into the custody of distinct federal agencies.
BuzzFeed said the spokesperson, Danielle Bennett, could not provide the number of families, nor even give examples of families, reunified since the “zero tolerance” policy took effect.
“We don’t have any metrics to provide at this point and we wouldn’t proactively give examples of this,” Bennett said.
“We’ll get a promise of coordination and then it doesn’t happen,” an unnamed attorney who’s represented children in ORR custody told the Intercept Tuesday. “There’s just not any commitment to the coordination of removal or reunification before removal. There doesn’t seem to be any plan.”
“I don’t see any evidence of any plan to reunify the parent and the child after the conclusion of the adult’s criminal case,” Chris Carlin, a public defender in Alpine, Texas, told the Daily Beast.
Add to all of this the recent development that ORR will be conducting joint fingerprint-based background checks with DHS for potential sponsors seeking to take children out of ORR care, and the process becomes more complicated still.
On a May 29 call with reporters in which he discussed the change, Steven Wagner, an HHS official whose department oversees ORR, dismissed concerns that undocumented potential sponsors may be unwilling to submit data to DHS.
“If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that, de facto, calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” Wagner said.