EL PASO, Texas—Immigrant families won’t be separated anymore, thanks to a new order from President Trump, but that doesn’t mean families will be reunited.
Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday ending the practice of taking children away from parents who enter the U.S. illegally. Already, though, more than 2,000 children have been separated, according to the government, and advocates and attorneys for them fear they will never see their parents again.
Despite Trump’s order, there is no clear, publicly articulated plan to reunite families who are already detained. Parents are held in facilities near the border like McAllen, Texas, while their children are sent to foster-care homes as far as New York, Illinois, and Michigan. While the adults wait to be deported, their advocates must navigate multiple federal agencies to locate their children.
“The executive order that President Trump signed is no solution,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission Migrant Rights and Justice program, in a statement. “First, there are more than 2,000 children already separated from their parents. This EO does nothing to address that nightmare.”
The Department of Health and Human Services reportedly said it would not make a special effort to reunite the children already separated from their families. (An HHS spokesperson later said the first spokesperson misspoke.)
On Tuesday, an ICE spokesperson told The Daily Beast if a parent asks to be deported with a separated child, the agency will accommodate the request “to the extent practicable.”
A child immigrant advocate in the Midwest looking after a 6-year-old Guatemalan girl described “cold-calling” ICE officials in El Paso and Washington, D.C., to reunite the girl with her mother so they can be deported together.
The girl’s mother is in ICE custody in El Paso 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.
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.
The advocate estimated many of the separated children will be in the U.S. six months from now.
“I would say these children will still be here,” the advocate added.
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, while children are tried separately in immigration courts.)
DHS conceded that parents have been 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,” the spokesperson said Tuesday.
Chris Carlin, head of the federal public defender’s office in Alpine, 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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated throughout.