In Trump's efficient US family separation system, reunions with children take far longer

Karina Lopez's 1-year-old daughter hugs her mother after they were detained by Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas, last June.
Karina Lopez's 1-year-old daughter hugs her mother after they were detained by Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas, last June. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - On a simple fly printed in Spanish and English, the Trump administration now provides migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with a step-by-step guide explaining what to do after they have been separated from their children.

What it does not tell them is whether they will get their kids back.

In the deepening crisis over the Trump administration's decision to separate migrant families at the border, immigration attorneys and child advocates say that one of its most pernicious features is a haphazard system for reuniting families after they are divided.

As the administration faces growing outrage over its "zero tolerance" crackdown at the border, Trump officials say they are committed to helping parents locate their children and avoid being deported without them. But the measures have proven far more efficient at splitting up families than putting them back together again.

On Tuesday (May 19), Homeland Security officials said they separated 2,342 children from their parents along the border between May 5 and June 9, reclassifying them as "Unaccompanied Alien Children" and placing them in foster care with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Trump officials could not say how many of those children have been reunited with their mothers and fathers.

"I don't know how many separated kids have been placed or reunited with parents," Mr Steven Wagner, a Trump appointee at the department, told reporters. "This policy is relatively new, and we're still working through experience of reunifying with their kids after adjudication."

Under the Trump administration's separation system, parents who are prosecuted and held in immigration detention to await deportation cannot regain custody of their children. Those who are released may spend weeks or even months trying to get them back. The government's new flyer offers no assurances that children will be returned.

Instead, the process requires coordination between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which holds many of the parents, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of children and places them with adult "sponsors".

Usually those sponsors are close relatives, but sometimes they are foster homes hundreds of miles away.

"There is complete chaos," said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Lee Gelernt, whose organisation is suing to force the government to promptly return children to their parents.

The ACLU filed the suit in February on behalf of a Congolese woman who whose seven-year-old daughter was taken from her after they entered the United States seeking asylum. The daughter was placed in foster care 1,000 miles (1,609km) away, and the two were apart for four months.

A federal judge in San Diego this month allowed the suit to go forward, writing that the separation "arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child" and appears to violate a "constitutional right to family integrity".

Legal experts anticipate a ruling on the ACLU's request for a nationwide injunction in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, a Guatemalan woman filed suit in federal district court in Washington to force the government to give back her seven-year-old son, whom she was separated from after crossing the border illegally and requesting asylum on May 19. The woman's attorneys say she has not been able to speak with the boy since her release from custody last week and that she does not know where he is.

Trump administration officials say the allegations of bureaucratic disorder are overblown and that they have a legal obligation to thoroughly screen adults who apply to gain custody of children in government care, particularly to ensure that alleged family relationships are real and that minors will not become trafficking victims.

Because US courts have ruled that children cannot generally be held in detention, letting their parents out would be tantamount to treating children as "get-out-of-jail-free cards", according to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who argues that such treatment would only tempt more lawbreaking.

On Monday, Ms Nielsen gave a fierce defence of the prosecution policy, insisting that the government's aim is to protect children. She said the number of adults and children arriving at the border who fraudulently claimed to be a family group rose 314 per cent between October 2017 and February this year, without specifying the number of cases.

A Homeland Security official later said the agency detected 46 such fraud cases during the government's 2017 fiscal year, or about 0.06 per cent of the more than 70,000 families taken into custody. The figure rose to 191 during the first five months of the current fiscal year.

Ms Nielsen has also defended the practice by arguing that migrant parents who break the law face the same criminal justice that would apply to US citizens. "If an American were to commit a crime, they would be referred to jail and separated from their family," she said.

Mr Gelernt, the ACLU attorney, said that claim is dishonest. "In America, when you get out of jail, you get your kid back," he said.

Migrant parents face significantly more bureaucratic hurdles once they lose legal custody to the US government. Some parents have panicked or suffered breakdowns, including Mr Marco Antonio Muñoz, an asylum seeker from Honduras who took his own life in a padded jail cell last month after being forcefully separated from his wife and three-year-old son.

Those arrested for crossing illegally are taken into US Border Patrol custody and informed they will be charged with the crime. When the parents are transported to federal courtrooms by US Marshals, their children are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services' foster care.

In most cases, parents who plead guilty are sentenced to time served. They may be transferred to detention facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or possibly released with some form of electronic monitoring, such as an ankle bracelet, while pursuing an asylum claim. The government says parents who agree to a rapid deportation are more likely to get an expedited reunion with their child.

The government has set up a new hotline to help parents locate children, but if a child is placed at a shelter or foster home in another state or hundreds of miles away, the Department of Health and Human Services does not provide transportation. The parent has to be approved as a suitable sponsor, then go to the shelter to claim the child.

"The potential sponsor of an alien child has to be vetted and available to come pick up the child and care for child and take child to immigration court proceedings," said Mr Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

That disqualifies parents who are no longer facing criminal charges but remain in ICE detention. "If the potential sponsor is incarcerated, that's not going to be the person who is chosen," said Mr Wolfe.

Immigration advocates have documented instances in recent months of parents deported to Central America while their children are left behind in US foster care.

Parents awaiting deportation can request that their child be sent home with them, but those arrangements have to be made by a deportation officer in writing and coordinated with their country's consulate, according to Ms Danielle Bennett, a spokesman for ICE.

"If the parent chooses to have his or her children accompany him or her, ICE accommodates, to the extent practicable, the parent's efforts to make provisions for their children," Ms Bennett said. "As appropriate, ICE will work with the adult to have the child return to their country of citizenship with them."

Parents who wish for their children to remain in the country with a relative who sponsors that child may do so, Ms Bennett said, especially if the child intends to make an immigration claim such as an asylum petition.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it places nearly 90 per cent of children with one of that child's parents or a close adult relative. But a new information-sharing agreement allows Homeland Security to obtain personal information on all potential sponsors, including their immigration status, a change that advocates say will have a chilling effect that discourages those living in the country illegally from picking up the children.

The latest figures from the Department of Health and Human Services show that the government is taking more migrant children into custody and holding them for lengthier periods - 57 days on average.

At least 2,500 children have been separated from their parents in the past two months, the latest statistics show. The number of children separated from their parents and sent to the Department of Health and Human Services has increased to about70 per day.

The agency had 11,785 children in its care as of Monday, with its shelters at 94 per cent capacity. According to Mr Wolfe, the agency spokesman, the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 700 open beds and an additional 1,000 it can quickly add to meet growing demand.