Under pressure to meet a federal judge’s deadline, immigration officials have begun releasing children that had been taken from their families when crossing into the United States; the bulk of families who will be reunified will first be released in Texas, one of the leaders of the effort to care for the families said Monday. The reunifications are taking place at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities and the families will then be turned over to one of four nearby non-governmental organizations, said Ruben Garcia, the director and founder of El Paso’s Annunciation House. In addition to Garcia’s organization, other organizations accepting migrants include Catholic Charities in San Antonio, the Catholic Charities shelter at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Phoenix.
“All of the families, after they’ve been reunified and they come to us, will probably spend one night with us, at the most I would imagine two, while we make transportation arrangements for them to go on to be reunified with family and friends that live in the United States,” Garcia said at a Monday morning press conference at Casa Vides, one of the Annunciation House facilities that will take in the reunified families.
The reunifications of children ages five to seventeen began Friday night and are expected to continue until at least July 26, the deadline set by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of San Diego for the government to complete the reunifications of families it had separated at the border in recent months. He had set an earlier deadline of last Tuesday for the reunification of children four and younger, and the government said it returned 57 of the 103 children in that group to their parents. The government said that others couldn’t be reunited for a variety of reasons: doubt about paternity or maternity; a judgment that the parent was a risk to the child because of criminal history or other problems; and that the parents had already been deported without their children.
The number of children age five to seventeen is much larger, estimated to be about 2,500. The largest number of reunifications likely will be in the McAllen area, because the Rio Grande Valley has been the most popular entry point for Central American families entering the United States. Garcia said government officials have not yet provided numbers of how many families they expect to reunite in El Paso, but he has activated a network of shelters to handle as many as fifty families a day later this week.
Annunciation House received three Central American fathers and their three- and four-year-old children last week. It received its first family covered by the court order for older children Sunday night—a father and his six-year-old son—and was expecting six families Monday. Garcia said that while the younger children last week adapted quickly and warmly to their fathers, that was not the case with the six-year-old Sunday night. “The best way that I can describe it is (that the boy was) looking all around, no smile, just looking all around, trying to understand what is happening,” Garcia said. “And I could not help but ask myself if part of what’s going through this little child[‘s mind] is: is someone going to take me away again?”
As Garcia explained the reunification process, he sat next to two parents—a mother from El Salvador named Digna and a father from Honduras named Mario (both asked that their last names not be used)—who have been at Annunciation House almost three weeks, waiting to be reunited with their children. The children have been held just a few blocks from the parents’ shelter, and they’ve been allowed to see their children once a week for an hour. Annunciation House legal adviser Taylor Levy said social workers have needlessly delayed the reunification. She said the parents hope to have their children back later Monday. Seeing other reunions gives him hope, said Mario, separated from his ten-year-old daughter Fabiola for more than a month. “I am happy to see them happy and hugging their children. At the same time, I am sad I cannot share that happiness. At least that gives me hope that they will return my daughter soon and I will be able to share the experience, to hug my daughter and tell her so many things,” he said.
As the family reunifications continue over the next two weeks, the longer-term prospects for the families remain uncertain. The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit that led to the end of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, said in a court filing on Sunday that the administration might be preparing a mass deportation of the parents, giving them little time to decide whether to take their newly reunited children back with them to Central America or leave them in the United States during their own attempts to gain asylum. “As the court has recognized, it is difficult to imagine a more momentous decision for any parent. That decision, however, is not only momentous, but exceedingly complex,” ACLU lawyers said in their filing. “It cannot be made until parents not only have had time to fully discuss the ramifications with their children, but also to hear from the child’s advocate or counsel, who can explain to the parent the likelihood of the child ultimately prevailing in his or her own asylum case if left behind in the U.S. (as well as where the child is likely to end up living).”
The ACLU asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting any deportation of any parent for at least seven days after reunification, so that the parents would have time to discuss their options with an attorney. Government lawyers told Sabraw during a status conference on Monday that they opposed the ACLU motion, and the judge gave the government a week to file a response. Sabraw also issued a stay blocking deportations while he considered the ACLU’s restraining order request and the government’s response.
Iliana Holguin, an immigration attorney in El Paso, said the family separation policy ended because of public outrage. She urged people not to become complacent as the reunifications move forward. “I think people now realize that the next part of that is well, yeah, the children are being reunified, but these people are being deported without being given that opportunity to seek asylum, the protection that they came for in the first place. I think we will see the outrage all over again,” Holguin said.