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Permanent Separation: ICE Could Break Up Immigrant Families Forever

Parents and kids finding each other in the U.S. is hard, advocates say, and even harder once adults are deported.

EL PASO, Texas—Some separated immigrant parents and children may never see each other again, attorneys and advocates fear.

That’s because there isn’t a clear plan to reunite families. Instead, immigrants and their attorneys and advocates must navigate a complex network of agents at multiple federal agencies and in detention centers across the country in an attempt to reunite parents and children before deportation.

Even if a foreign government agrees to allow an immigrant back into the country, there is no guarantee that U.S. court cases for the parent or the child will be resolved at the same time, allowing them to return together. Adults are being tried in criminal court for illegal entry, while children are held in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services as they go through their own immigration case, in most cases without a lawyer.

Chris Carlin, who represents families who have been separated in Abilene, Texas, told The Daily Beast that he fears some of his clients will never be reunited with their children.

“I think that’s a real possibility,” he said.

Many of the deported parents return to homelessness and poverty, Carlin said, and may not be reachable by the U.S. government who is still holding their child days, weeks, or months later.

HHS has put the children of Carlin’s clients in foster homes as far away as New York and Illinois, and he said this makes the obstacle of reconnecting children to their parents potentially insurmountable.

“In the cases that I’m personally familiar with, 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,” Carlin said. “I don’t see any evidence of that at all.”

Parents in detention are unlikely to have all the requisite identification documents DHS and HHS demand to prove that a parent and child are in fact related, according to Carlos M. Garcia, an immigration attorney in Austin.

Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson for ICE, told The Daily Beast that if a parent asks to be deported with a separated child, the agency will accommodate the request “to the extent practicable.”

She conceded that parents are sometimes deported without their children.

“When parents are removed without their children, ICE, ORR, 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,” she said.

Bennett did not respond to a question about whether or not ICE could guarantee all parents will be reunited with their children.

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.
Attorney Chris Carlin

A child immigrant advocate in the Midwest said it’s possible many of the 2,000 children detained since the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was announced will still be here six months from now.

“I would say these children will still be here” even if their parents have been deported, she told The Daily Beast.

The advocate was recently successful in relocating a 6-year-old Guatemalan girl to El Paso from the facility where she was being held in the Midwest, thousands of miles away. The girl’s mother is also in El Paso, where she is in ICE custody after being turned away at the Paso del Norte port of entry where she sought asylum. The Daily Beast is providing the advocate with anonymity to protect the identity of the mother and child from feared retribution for speaking out.

The advocate described “cold-calling” ICE officials in El Paso and Washington, D.C., in her attempts to reunite the mother and child so they can be deported together. In her case, the advocate says an Office of Refugee Resettlement agent was helpful in coordinating with ICE, but that isn’t always the case.

“There’s some actors that are more willing to cooperate than others,” the advocate said.

With lawyers and advocates struggling to coordinate deportations and in some cases even find children, the difficulties are even greater for parents in detention centers across the country.

Garcia said none of the people he met with had received any paperwork on how to find their children. However, The Daily Beast obtained an ICE document that is handed out to some immigrants once they’re detained. It contains several phone numbers for parents to try to find their children. One number notes that the lines are monitored by DHS, possibly scaring away undocumented members of immigrants’ families working on their behalf from their homes in the United States. (An immigration advocate told The New Yorker that the ICE hotline had hold times of more than 30 minutes and call-back numbers cannot be left.)

“Who knows when they’ll be reunified, if they are reunified,” Garcia said.

A former ICE director told NBC News parents and children may be separated for years, if not permanently. “You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the U.S. that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted,” said John Sandweg, who served as ICE’s acting director in the Obama administration from 2013-2014.

The children of parents who have been deported may sometimes be able to gain the legal right to stay in the U.S. if they can make a valid asylum claim, qualify for special immigrant juvenile status, or qualify for a visa for crime victims, according to Ashley Feasley, the director of policy at Migration and Refugee Services in U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. Her organization works with children who have been separated from their parents, and one of their concerns is whether deported parents can have a voice in their children’s immigration court proceedings.

“How do we ensure that we can connect a mom that’s been deported to make sure she is fully informed of her child’s rights and responsibilities under the immigration system, and do so in the timely manner that we’ll need to as prescribed by our immigration laws?” Feasley said. “That’s a big concern of mine.”

Children who have been separated from their parents usually get a brief legal orientation, but most don’t have lawyers so they have to face an immigration judge alone. If their parents are deported or in detention, they may have no idea what kind of legal decisions their children face.

“These kids are traumatized,” the Midwest advocate said. “The families are heartbroken.”

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