Thousands of parents separated from their children at the United States border are still in the dark about when, how, or even if, they’ll be reunited with their kids.
A fact sheet posted online Saturday night by the Department of Homeland Security leaves many questions unanswered, said Efrén C. Olivares, racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, during a Sunday call with reporters.
The Texas Civil Rights Project is one of many organizations taking action to try to bring families — some separated for more than a month as the result of President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy — back together.
“If the fact sheet had been published before zero tolerance, then I could see they had a plan,” Olivares said, but added: “They are figuring this out after they have already separated so many families.”
Already more than 520 children have been reunited with family, according to the fact sheet, but even that is concerning, Olivares said, because it’s not quite clear whether each child was reunited with the parent they were separated from at the border or with family elsewhere in the U.S.
“[They] use the term reunite a little ambiguously in my view,” he said.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Office is handling the reunification of more than 2,000 children still staying in detention centres. Only 17 per cent are there as a result of the zero tolerance policy, according to the fact sheet. The vast majority arrived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian.
People looking to see if their child is currently in custody are advised to call the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) office’s national call centre. Their information will then be passed on to the facility holding their child. However, an attorney in Brownsville, Texas, told Global last week that number provides very little 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,” said Rochelle Garza. “That hasn’t happened.”
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The fact sheet outlines what it calls a “well coordinated” process for reunification. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will use an “identification mechanism” to track family members as they move through the system and will work with foreign consulates to make sure that both parent and child have the right travel documents in order to be deported together. However, a Texas charitable organization says 32 immigrant parents freed into its care on Sunday don’t know where their kids are or when they might see them again despite the government’s assurances.
Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, said the group of both mothers and fathers includes some from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras who arrived to his group after federal authorities withdrew criminal charges for illegal entry.
To ensure good communication between parent and child, the government fact sheet says children will be allowed to speak with a “vetted parent, guardian or relative” within 24 hours of arriving at a facility. After that, it notes that “every effort” is made to allow children to speak at least twice a week with their parent.
So far, Olivares said he’s confirmed with just one father that he was able to call and speak with his daughter.
For the most part, confusion reigns. The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last month asking the U.S. government to put an immediate halt to family separations and to reunite those who had been separated.
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Of the original five families used to file that petition, Olivares said three have been released from ICE detention but have yet to be heard from. It’s unclear whether they’ve been deported or released in the U.S. with a notice to appear.
“We gave them our contact info and asked them to reach out to us immediately and none of them had done so,” he said.
There’s worry, he said, not just that parents will be deported without their children — a choice the fact sheet points out many parents have made in the past — but also that language barriers could mean the U.S. deports parents without even realizing they’re leaving children behind.
“The executive order that was signed by the president did not alter the zero tolerance policy,” Olivares said. “It remains in place and that is the root of the problem and that is what needs to end in order for the separations to completely end and not be restarted.”
— with files from Andrew Russell and The Associated Press
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