The federal government, rushing to meet a court-imposed deadline to reunite children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, has released a nine-page, flowchart-heavy plan detailing its process for family reunification.
Advocates for the thousands of children currently held in government custody are not impressed.
The document, titled “The Tri-Department Plan for Stage II of Family Reunification,” was released to journalists late on Wednesday evening by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. In it, the three departments envision a five-step process to reunite an undetermined number of the estimated 2,551 minors between the ages of five and 17 still in HHS custody, although the release notes that “this number represents the total possible 5-and-up cohort of minors who could be subject to the court order” and is likely to include “a significant number of minors who are not eligible for reunification under the court’s order.”
In plain English: not all children will be returned to their families.
The plan—released more than three weeks after U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered immigration authorities “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making” by reuniting the separated children with their families—seeks to reform what has been a slapdash government response to the self-made crisis. But leading advocates for immigrant and refugee rights dismissed the proposed plan of action as “pitiful.”
“Weeks and months after children were forcibly separated from their parents, violating international laws and any sense of moral decency, we cannot be impressed with a new flow chart outlining the process for reunification,” Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told The Daily Beast. “The release of this plan—how many days after a court order of reunification?—is just pitiful.”
In his ruling granting an injunction against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and ordering the government to reunify children separated from their parents at the border, Judge Sabraw set a final deadline one week from Thursday for the government to reunite the more than 2,500 children between the ages of five and 18 with their families. The government missed meeting a second deadline—for children under the age of five—by two days.
In a call with reporters last week, Matthew Albence, executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportations unit, and Chris Meekins, chief of staff for HHS’s Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, assured the public that the final deadline would be met—but advocates are skeptical that HHS’s nine-page plan can accomplish the reunifications in a single week.
“They have been fighting this every step of the way,” Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told The Daily Beast. “If they wanted to, they could have released parents and arranged for those unifications in a much more coordinated and simple way—but they’ve been so resistant to any kind of appearance that they are treating these people humanely.”
Given the government’s failure to properly inform parents of their children’s location—and failure, in some cases, to know where those children are at all—“we think the process should also be subject to independent oversight,” Tactaquin said, “to ensure that the government process does not continue in the same inhumane and incompetent manner.”
The HHS overview briefly describes a five-step process for family reunification highly similar to the one used for children under the age of five. Following an initial criminal background check of the adult from whom the child or children were separated, HHS will review its case file on the individual for “red flags” that would potential trafficking or abuse.
“The departments anticipate that, in most cases, this constellation of information will demonstrate that the adult is the parent,” the plan states, although some cases may require “DNA testing or consular documents” to resolve questions about legal or biological relationships between children and adults.
The case file is then reviewed for signs that the adult may not be a safe caregiver for the child—signs that include diagnosis of a communicable disease or a criminal record, including arrest for attempting to cross the border with their child, a proviso that struck Tactaquin as laughable.
“The U.S. government is framing its reunification approach by concerns for the child's welfare and safety,” Tactaquin said. “Clearly this was not a consideration when babies and other children were torn away from their parents.”
Before the Trump administration’s policy, immigrants apprehended at the U.S. border were typically held in detention, with their families, before seeing an immigration judge. But the new Justice Department policy mandates that all adults caught attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally be criminally prosecuted—sending adults to federal jail and leaving children behind in government custody.
Following the second case file review, adults in ICE custody will be interviewed by HHS, which will then—again, barring “red flags”—reunite the child with their family member.
The plan, Tactaquin said, is missing a crucial step: what to do after the families are reunited.
“There should be a period of time when the families are free from deportation so that they can decide on the future of the children, who have been categorized as unaccompanied minors and have separate cases from the parents,” Tactaquin said. “We also urge the reunited families to be released from detention facilities so that they may receive adequate legal and emotional support to deal with the trauma they been going through.”
When asked by The Daily Beast what services were being provided to the children in its custody, HHS did not elaborate beyond stating that children had access to “medical and behavioral care.”
Brané said that “constant vigilance” on the part of advocates, concerned citizens and the press was the only way to keep the government from “backsliding” into the chaotic first days of “zero tolerance” family separations.
“As with everything else in this reunification process,” Brané said, “it is like pulling teeth.”