Lawyers and organizations working to reunite migrant children with their parents separated by Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy describe a frustrating, heartbreaking, and chaotic process that has left thousands of families searching for answers.
Rochelle Garza, an attorney in Brownsville, Texas, said the U.S. government has done little to help with family reunifications, even as Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday, ending his administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“A lot of these parents weren’t even given the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ or that ‘everything is going to be OK,’” Garza told Global News. “It’s a really difficult system to navigate and it’s hard to imagine what these kids are going through.”
Over 2,300 children — some as young as eight months old — were removed from migrant parents who crossed the border illegally and remain in shelters and foster homes across the country. It is unclear if they will ever be reunited with their parents as former ICE director John Sandweg said this week the separations could be permanent.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the U.S. agency responsible for providing shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children, has a toll-free number parents can call but Garza said it doesn’t provide much information.
“I’ve called it to try and find the location of a child. I was told in a certain number of days, I would receive an email or phone call,” she said. “That hasn’t happened.”
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) offers pro-bono legal services to unaccompanied children and has been working to help parents track down their kids. Megan McKenna, senior director of communications with KIND, said it’s been like “detective work” trying to reunite families as children.
“The family separations were put in place without a plan to deal with the ramifications,” McKenna told Global News. “We’ve really tried to just use guesswork to figure out where the parent could be.”
When a family crosses the border illegally, parents are referred to the U.S. Marshals Service for prosecution, McKenna said. The child is designated as “unaccompanied alien children” and referred to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“Once they are separated, the child’s case and the parents’ case go on two separate tracks and these two systems don’t talk to each other,” she said. “Without this communication, we can’t tell the child how their parents are doing, or where their parent is.”
“How this is being implemented is chaos.”
In some cases, officials have sent children to city facilities without notifying the local government. In New York City, 239 migrant children were sent to Cayuga Centers in Harlem, which works with the federal government to help unaccompanied minors.
“How is it possible that none of us knew there were 239 kids right here in our own city?” Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN on Thursday. “Stop this broken, inhumane policy right now.”
Organizations said reunification is further complicated by bureaucratic errors, lack of resources and in some cases, young children who speak Indigenous languages may not be able to provide officials their parents’ complete names.
A Brazilian man held in detention after being apprehended at the border nearly 30 days ago told the Associated Press he has no idea when he may see his nine-year-old who he fears is distraught and having difficulty communicating because he only speaks Portuguese.
“He cried. He was so sad,” the father said. “I had promised him it would only be three to five days.”
On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that 500 migrant children have been reunited with their families, but McKenna said her organization and others were still working to confirm those numbers.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar said at a Washington Post event on Wednesday that his agency tries to keep track of parents.
“We keep in touch with the parents,” Azar said. “Even under any circumstance, we’re working to always be in touch with the parents to ensure placement with relatives, and if parents are released, to ensure that they can go to the parents if the parents are appropriate sponsors.”
Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal-aid organization representing close to 400 parents, said the process on the ground has been a frantic search with little information from the U.S. government.
“It’s been physically and emotionally taxing for everyone involved in this process,” spokesperson Ash Hall told Global News. “Interviewing these parents – most of whom are crying throughout the interview – having to tell them we are not entirely sure where your kids are — it’s harrowing and it’s awful.”
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However, Hall did say that in the Texas border city of McAllen, federal prosecutors did not pursue charges against immigrants on Friday and charges against 17 migrants were unexpectedly dropped on Thursday.
“Today was the first time that we didn’t have any parents who had been separated from children to interview,” Hall said.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has begun plans to house 20,000 migrant families on U.S. military bases and on Friday, the president accused Democrats of telling “phony stories of sadness and grief.”
“We cannot allow our country to be overrun by illegal immigrants,” he tweeted.
Garza said that Trump’s executive order has created further confusion in Texas and that keeping families detained indefinitely is not the solution.
“Are we going to have tent cities of families together, with parents prosecuted during the day?” she said. “I don’t know what is going to happen but that outcome is terrifying to me.”