Thursday morning at the courthouse in McAllen, Texas, migrant parents awaiting their hearings were most concerned with how to find their children. Carlos García, an immigration attorney, said one mother who had fled gang violence in El Salvador wanted to know when she could see her 16-year-old son. “Please help us get back together,” she said in a soft voice as she cried.
García told her the truth: “We can’t guarantee you’re going to be reunited with your son any time soon,” the Texas lawyer said, and he watched a hopeless expression stretch across her face.
Out of the seven migrants he interviewed that morning, only one of the parents had received any information from Border Patrol about how to contact their child ― a small piece of paper with a 1-800 hotline number set up by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“If there is a [reunification] system in place, it’s not being communicated to the parents who just lost their children,” García said. “They don’t understand anything that’s going on; they don’t know how to get in touch with their kids. Everything is extremely difficult for them.”
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced an executive order that would end the policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. But the Trump administration appears to have no clear plan for reuniting more than 2,300 kids with their families. The situation is so bad that John Sandweg, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told MSNBC he thinks that Trump’s zero tolerance policy could result in the long-term separation of families and that some may “never see each other again.” Migrants have already been deported from the U.S. without their children. Immigration experts who are working to reunite parents with their children say the government has no system in place to solve a problem of its own making.
“These mothers and daughters should obviously have never been separated to begin with,” said Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “But the idea that there is not a plan in place to reunite them, and that it is highly likely some children will never be reunited, is just horrible.”
Experts say that, in most cases, children were separated from their parents shortly after crossing the border and were held in different short-term detention centers. According to García, Border Patrol told some of the migrants he interviewed that they would see their kids after going through a court hearing, but that didn’t turn out to be true. Other parents weren’t given any information at all.
“When they ask, ‘Where is my child being taken?’ they don’t get any answer,” Buser-Clancy said. “And mothers have described both them and their daughter crying as they’re being separated and having no idea when they will be reunited at all.”
By the time migrants finish their court hearings and are put in ICE detention centers, Buser-Clancy said, their children have likely been transferred to longer-term facilities that could be anywhere in the country and are officially in ORR custody. “The parents who are lucky enough to be told where their children are held are told, ‘Your child is somewhere in Virginia or Miami.’”
“The idea that there is not a plan in place to reunite them, and that it is highly likely some children will never be reunited, is just horrible.”
But many parents aren’t even given that much detail. “Parents have been separated from their kids for three to four days and are obviously undergoing severe anxiety and trauma about where their child is,” Buser-Clancy said. “Imagine the gut-wrenching pain they are going through not knowing anything about their child.” He described the government’s process for reuniting families as “haphazard and callously indifferent to the trauma that both the parents and children are undergoing.”
A CBP spokesperson told HuffPost in an email, “For those children still in Border Patrol custody, we are reuniting them with parents or legal guardians returned to Border Patrol custody following prosecution” and pointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, which states that every facility in which migrants are kept for over 72 hours has posters with phone numbers and emails parents can use to try to and locate their children.
ICE did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Buser-Clancy said that he hadn’t seen any such posters in the detention centers and that none of the parents he’s spoken to are aware of a hotline. He’s seen migrants submit a written request to find their child’s location, and though some have received answers, others have not. In the best-case scenario, Buser-Clancy said, a parent is able to speak with their child by phone.
Grier Weeks, a senior executive at the National Association to Protect Children, said the government should have implemented a better tracking system to monitor families. “They have to get everyone into a single database and know where they are at all times,” he told HuffPost. “They don’t care about a kid as much as Amazon cares about a package ― or else they would keep track of them.”
García said that, at the very least, immigration officials should have given parents their children’s identification numbers, known as alien numbers and assigned to every undocumented immigrant who enters U.S. custody.
“If [the government is] going to create unaccompanied minor children, then they should have a system in place that’s going to facilitate reunification,” he said. “It’s total chaos.”
Elissa Steglich, a clinical professor in the University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, said that, for the time being, parents can only reunite with their children if their asylum process is successful. If they are deported, it could be very hard to find children who could be in government facilities or foster care.
“The trauma and the lasting harm to these children is just reprehensible,” Steglich said. “We really do owe it morally and legally to the parent to reunify them with their children immediately.”