Two weeks ago, a federal judge praised the Trump administration for its efforts in meeting a court-ordered deadline to reunite the majority of 2,500 children who had been separated from their parents by border agents after they crossed into the United States illegally. But as lawyers with the government and those representing the immigrants sort out what happened to the families of roughly 500 children who remain separated, nightmarish tales are beginning to emerge of parents being reunited with their kids only to have them taken away a second time; or of parents being told that they are about to be reunited with their children, only to wait hours before being returned to holding facilities without seeing their kids—and without any explanation.
Texas Monthly had an opportunity to speak with several fathers who are being held in a private prison in the New Mexico desert in Otero County, New Mexico, just outside El Paso. Many of them fear retaliation from their jailers and they also fear reprisal from officials in their native Guatemala. Texas Monthly agreed to identify them by pseudonyms.
Pablo and Antonio are two of these men who shared their story via telephone interviews set up by immigration advocates. On July 25, they said, the day before the deadline set for reunifications by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of San Diego, the two men changed out of jail uniforms into civilian clothes at Otero and were put on a bus with other detained parents, headed for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center about fifteen miles away in El Paso. That afternoon, they finally were reunited with their teenage sons after months of separation. Hugs and excited conversations ensued. They were put on a bus with other newly reunified families, and the bus drove out of the ICE detention facility. But the bus soon reversed course.
“Five minutes in, the woman taking care of us received a call and told the driver to go back. We went back to the (El Paso ICE) parking lot, where now there were two other buses,” Pablo said. “She told us to move to the bus that said ‘Misioneros,’” or Missionaries, he said. Their children stayed with them. “Then we boarded and waited for about an hour and a half. We were wondering what was happening. They made us get off in pairs to ask us about our children, what were their names, ages, names of the parents, etc. Then we boarded again and one person from ICE arrived and asked us to sign a paper.”
The paper gave the twenty-five parents on the bus three options, Pablo and Antonio said: “I wish to be deported with my child”; “I wish for my child to stay in the U.S. for his or her own asylum case if I am deported”; “I want to talk to a lawyer.” It was a gut-wrenching choice that immigration advocates say was given to hundreds of newly reunited families. Do they stay together as a family if the parent is deported, the likely outcome for most of the parents? Or do the parents leave their children behind with relatives in the United States, hoping their children win their own asylum case so they don’t have to return to the poverty and violence that drove them out of their homeland in the first place? According to Pablo and Antonio, as well as other detainees interviewed by lawyers, the English-language forms given to the parents had the first box already pre-checked: Deport me with my child. Pablo, Antonio, and several other parents on the bus objected. They preferred to leave their children in the United States if they are deported.
“I checked the option that I wanted and the officer got mad with us and made us get off the bus,” Pablo said. “Then a second and a third officer arrived, a woman and a man, and asked us to sign again. Then a fourth person arrived, also an officer, and told us to board the bus again. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘you are going to a shelter now.’ We sat there hugging our children,” Pablo recalled. “They said that if we didn’t sign we were going to be separated from our children. They threatened us,” Pablo said.
Antonio, who also wanted his teenage son to stay in the United States if he was deported, said, “When we didn’t sign, they got very mad and they told us, ‘Well, you are not going to see your children ever again.’” The parents who refused to sign were taken off the bus, leaving their children behind.
Six fathers and one mother on the bus refused to sign the document with the pre-checked box saying they wished to be deported with their children, said Taylor Levy, the director of the Annunciation House Legal Project, which has been helping separated parents in El Paso area ICE detention facilities. Pablo said several other parents who initially balked at agreeing to deportation with their children eventually consented. “There were parents who told their children that it would be better to stay here with their relatives. But the children cried and they ended up signing. Lots of parents cried a lot because they couldn’t be separated from their children,” Pablo said.
It’s unclear what happened to the parents who agreed to be deported with their children. One likely possibility is that they were taken to one of two family detention centers in South Texas to await deportation, which could come as early as this week. For the seven parents who refused to agree to deportation with their children, Levy said, their children were taken away from them after spending only a couple of hours back together. The parents returned to ICE detention centers, including the one in Otero; the children stayed on the bus and eventually went back to shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency in charge of caring for unaccompanied minors.
The short-lived July 25 reunion marked the second time that the U.S. government separated the families. The parents were not allowed to board the bus to say goodbye to their children. “It was very painful. I had been separated for so long and then I met him for such a short time,” Antonio said. For Pablo, “That was the hardest thing that ever happened to me. These are very difficult things to live through, but God gives us strength.” Both men said they have not been able to reach their children by phone since being separated again.
Federal officials rarely discuss individual immigration detainees, and require a full name and alien number before even considering giving a comment. Texas Monthly could not provide that information under the ground rules for the interviews. But the Department of Homeland Security provided a statement to Vox about the allegations that children were taken again from parents who refused to have their children deported with them. They did not deny it.
“Asking parents in ICE custody, who are subject to a final order of removal, to make a decision about being removed with or without their children, is part of long-standing policy,” the statement said. “For parents who have a final order of removal, and whose children have not received a final order, it is the parent’s decision whether to return with or without their children.”
Then there were those who were told they were about to be reunited with their children—without it ever happening.
Jorge and Diego also were taken by bus on July 25 from Otero to the El Paso ICE facilities. They were given paperwork that said they were being released from custody to be with their children while their asylum claims wound their way through immigration court. “We were in the (Otero) cafeteria when they told us to get our things because we were going to be reunited with our children,” Jorge said. “We all got excited.” He remembers traveling on a bus with about 38 detainees. “They took us to a big room. We stayed there for a full day and our kids never arrived. They then took us back to the prison.” Both Jorge and Diego said they were shackled for the return trip and were never told why they were not reunited with their children. “Nobody has given us any explanations. I was supposed to be reunited with my son and then they didn’t. Supposedly, they have opened a new case for me,” Diego said. Jorge said he’s been told his son is back at a shelter in Houston after being brought to El Paso for the aborted reunion; Diego said his son is with a cousin.
Although the Trump administration says it met the court-ordered deadlines for reuniting separated families, more than 500 children remain in government custody, away from their parents. Judge Sabraw was told that more than 400 of them have parents who were deported or otherwise removed from the country without their children. Another group of about 80 have parents who were released from custody in this country, but whom the government has not been able to locate since. Another 30 children have parents who have been deemed by the government to be ineligible for reunification with their children because of “red flags” in their backgrounds. It’s possible that Jorge and Diego are in that last group, though they have told attorneys they don’t have criminal records.
At a status conference on Friday before Sabraw, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt said the government hasn’t provided much information on what led to the red flags. Some of the information received so far shows that some of the red flags might involve relatively minor charges from a decade ago or longer, Gelernt said. Sabraw on Friday ordered the government to provide more information to the ACLU lawyers about the red flags.
Jorge said 35 fathers who had their children taken from them by border agents are still being detained at Otero. Levy said the Annunciation House Legal Project continues to help more than 50 parents in the El Paso area who still haven’t been reunited with their children. Seventeen apparently aren’t covered by Sabraw’s reunification order because their children had already been placed with other family members in the United States. Several are parents who were separated from their children a second time because they wouldn’t agree to have their children deported with them. Others, like Jorge and Diego, haven’t been told why they remain apart from their children. Levy says that 70 percent of the parents still detained across the Southwest have children age 14 or older. “It seems very clear to us that there was some sort of a decision to speed up the reunifications of the smaller children and not of the older children,” she said.
Levy said dozens of children likely suffered further harm as the deadline neared by being told that they would be reunited with their parents, only to be separated again or never seeing their parents at all. “They flew them across the country, told them they were being reunited. Those (seven) families who refused to sign, they were then ripped away from their parents again,” she said. “But even for the other ones who never saw their parents—that was thirty-some, we think—that were physically flown here, to the best of our knowledge. And then, what? What happened? … It’s just awful. It’s just horrifically sad.”
Spanish translation assistance for this article was provided by Lourdes Cueva Chacón, a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.