Sixteen migrant fathers who had previously been separated from and then reunited with their children were forcibly separated from them again and taken to another detention center without explanation on Wednesday, they told the legal aid group RAICES.
The fathers were returned to the Karnes County Residential Center in south-central Texas on Thursday, following a night of fear and worry.
Neither the men nor their lawyers know why it happened.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a statement saying there had been a “disturbance” on Wednesday involving about 40 detained men, but declined to offer further details. RAICES staff attorney Ryan Clough said an ICE officer at the Karnes center told him that the fathers refused to “go with the flow” and weren’t taking their kids to classes or other activities.
Clough said he suspects the sudden move may have been related to news that the fathers were preparing for a hunger strike.
“The facts strongly seem to suggest that this was retaliation for otherwise perfectly lawful, peaceful protest,” he said on a Friday call with reporters.
The Karnes County Residential Center is currently holding some of the immigrant families previously separated by the Trump administration, which took more than 2,000 children away from their parents as part of a crackdown on illegal border crossings. A court ordered the Trump administration to stop family separations in June and to reunite those it had already split up by July 26. The administration missed that deadline, and even now about 565 children remain apart from their parents.
RAICES and the fathers allege that the 16 families at Karnes were wrongly separated again on Wednesday, after more law enforcement officers showed up at the facility. Visitors, including attorneys, were abruptly ushered out.
One father, who spoke to reporters through an interpreter on Friday’s call, said he was in his room Wednesday afternoon when officers with helmets and guns knocked on his door and asked for him by name. He said he was handcuffed and taken with other men to a facility in Pearsall, Texas, some 80-plus miles away. He said the men had done nothing wrong.
The fathers asked officers why they were being removed from Karnes and what would happen to their children, he said, but they were not given any information.
He said he could not imagine being separated from his child again without being able to say goodbye.
Children were likewise left in the dark with little or no information about where their parents had gone, said the RAICES lawyers. One child who spoke to reporters said he spent the whole day crying.
The next day, the fathers were returned to the Karnes center and reunited with their kids, but were still not given an explanation, the dad on the call told reporters.
In a statement given to HuffPost on Friday, ICE said that about 40 men detained at the Karnes County Residential Center “were involved in a disturbance” on Wednesday.
“ICE San Antonio deployed additional law enforcement resources to control the situation, and as a precautionary measure, instructed all visitors to leave the facility,” ICE said. “No children housed at KCRC were involved in this incident; all were attending school at the time. Sixteen adult male residents were transferred out of KCRC and housed overnight at another facility, but will be returned to KCRC Thursday evening. No one was injured during this incident.”
The agency declined to answer additional questions, including about the allegation of potential retaliation.
The families were shaken by the incident, RAICES legal assistant Casey Miller told reporters. Fathers broke down in tears afterward while talking to her, she said.
“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of anger,” Miller said.