Reunification Proves Complicated for Families Separated at the U.S.-Mexico Border
“She keeps crying and telling me she hates it. ‘I want to be with Dad,’ she always says.”
It’s been over a month since Yancy’s seven-year-old daughter was separated from Yancy’s partner, José, and she still doesn’t know exactly where her daughter is. Somewhere in Florida, she tells Teen Vogue from her home in El Salvador.
José, and Yancy’s daughter, Darlin, fled gang threats in their small coastal town in the Central American country on May 18, with Yancy’s brother and his daughter. The four traveled north through Mexico in the back of a freezing cargo truck, intending to request asylum when they reached the United States border.
When they got there, border agents split up the family. Yancy’s brother’s daughter went to a shelter in Phoenix, and Darlin, supposedly, to a shelter in Florida. José was shuffled between detention centers before landing in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he remains. Yancy tells Teen Vogue that no one has told José of Darlin’s exact location or when she might be freed from immigration custody.
Darlin is just one of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 children who were separated from their undocumented parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which says every person crossing the border without U.S.-sanctioned documentation will be criminally prosecuted. The children were sent to shelters, sometimes thousands of miles away, a policy that has now been halted after outrage erupted across the country and internationally. Many of those attempting to cross the border are families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three countries in Central America suffering high levels of poverty, with violence rates higher than those of many countries at war.
The separations this year came after a 2017 pilot program separated children from their parents in Texas. The administration expanded the policy nationwide this spring, in a “haphazard fashion, designed to create chaos,” Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Texas nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), tells Teen Vogue.
Once separated, children like Darlin sent were sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, to be placed into a system that was created to process the thousands of minors who came to the U.S. unaccompanied, often intent on being received by relatives already in the country, but was repurposed to hold kids who were forcibly separated.
A pause to this practice has been little comfort to the thousands of parents who remain without their children. While some children have been turned over to family members, thousands are still in shelters and foster homes run by the government and nonprofit groups. Yancy is just one of many parents who still don’t know where their children are, and families like hers will now have to navigate a messy, potentially expensive bureaucratic process to get Darlin back.
Even when parents and children who have been separated are identified, the process of reunification is a maze. It is unclear, even for the government, where many of these paths will lead. Like most detained parents, José is trying to navigate a bureaucratic web without speaking the language, with little ability to communicate outside of his detention center, and until recently, without a lawyer.
In late June, U.S. District judge Dana Sabraw ruled that children affected by the zero tolerance policy under the age of five must be reunited with their parents by July 10, and all children be reunited with their parents by July 26. Now, the administration is scrambling to fix a problem it created, and given its disorganization, immigration advocates say it’s already missing deadlines. On June 26, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar told Congress that hundreds of children had been reunited with their parents and that there was “no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located,” but recently said, as reported by Vox, that he did not know the exact number who have been separated and who are under the care of the agency. The administration reportedly also lost track of some parents, according to NBC News, including those who had been deported without their children. Judge Sabraw said parents who were already deported may present a “big issue” going forward, but agreed to give the government more time for certain cases.
By Tuesday, the July 10 deadline, in the late afternoon, fewer than half of the 103 children under 5 who had been separated from their parents were reunified; by the end of the day, just 38 were expected to be reunified with their parents and anther 16 “soon thereafter,” according to U.S. officials.
By Thursday, the government said “initial reunifications were completed” and that it had reunited 57 children with their parents. According to the administration, it could not reunify the remaining children because some parents were found to have a “serious criminal history” or were in federal custody on charges; others were determined not to be a parent, or the parents had already been deported, among other reasons given.
“It is now apparent there was no master plan for reunification — there are different, confusing pieces that are in flux and leave massive holes that people can fall through,” Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, tells Teen Vogue. “It’s chaos.”
A large part of the chaos and delays lie in the administration’s failure to keep an official database linking parents and their kids when they were separated at the border. Some relevant records have reportedly been destroyed, the New York Times reported.
Now, authorities have to sort through the paperwork of an estimated 12,000 children in about 100 government-contracted shelters — including a former Walmart holding 1,500 migrant boys and detention homes that have been accused of administering drugs to children against their will — to determine which children had been forcibly separated from parents upon arrival and which arrived on their own. The Department of Homeland Security has reassigned an additional 230 people in order to comply with the court’s ruling, according to Azar, as reported by USA Today.
Because parents and children are treated as though they have separate immigration cases, children have been deported without their parents and parents without their children. In immigration proceedings, children are often left to fend for themselves: One-year-old toddlers have landed in court.
If families are reunited in the U.S., they will be released and go through immigration proceedings outside of detention, which could take several months or years.
While many parents remain detained, some people have been granted bond, which would make it easier for them to look for their children, since they are no longer stuck in a detention center and have a greater ability to communicate. But the cost is prohibitively high, starting at $1,500 and going beyond $20,000, sometimes even reaching $80,000. Even if José were to be released, he would have to come up with the money to reach his family in the Midwest, submit fingerprints, and present hordes of documents proving his relation to Darlin, his ability to financially provide for her, and his fitness as a parent. This could include everything from school transcripts in the home country to vaccination records, according to the New Yorker.
Darlin could also be released to a sponsor, which in most cases is a family member in the U.S. But, as NBC News reports, the administration has made this avenue difficult and potentially dangerous by directing immigration authorities to check the legal status of anyone who requests to sponsor migrant children.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will now collect fingerprints and other information, potentially putting sponsors at risk for deportation should they come forward to claim the children. Under previous administrations, ORR would not considerparents and family sponsors’ immigration status.
“Before this president, 90% of kids were released to a family member. But now that law enforcement is involved, people are reconsidering,” Young says. “This could have a chilling effect on family members’ willingness to accept custody of a child, which will lead to prolonged detention.”
Also, sponsors often have to pay costs reaching into the thousands for the separated children’s travel from the shelter to their home, costs that were sometimes waived under the Obama administration.
During court proceedings this week, Judge Sabraw sought to eliminate some of the red tape by saying ICE should only conduct DNA tests when necessary, CNN reported. Sabraw also said parents should no longer need to file so much paperwork just to get their children back.
“The parents are not applying. They don’t have to prove that they’re going to be a good sponsor,” he said. “What the government has to look to is whether the parent is unfit or a danger.”
Due to a separate court decision on July 9, the administration still has the power to separate families — but for now, it is opting to release them. As Dara Lind wrote for Vox, as a result of the ruling, for certain cases, “the government can force parents to make a choice: stay with their children in immigration detention indefinitely, or remain detained by ICE while their children are sent to the custody of Health and Human Services (just as they were under the family-separation policy) and ultimately placed with another adult in the U.S.”
Numbers from Customs and Border Protection indicate the policy of prosecuting parents and separating children has hardly deterred further migration, according to an analysis by the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA). The number of families arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol dropped 4.6% from May to June, if calculating based on the average of those historically apprehended during these months.
Migrants have said that they will continue to come because they would rather risk making it to the U.S. than face certain death in their home countries. Because of this reality, many parents, like José, have continued with their legal right to apply for asylum, even as the Trump administration continues to implement policies that make it harder for migrants to apply for asylum and less likely to receive it.
Officers who interview those seeking asylum at the border and review refugee applications have been directed to immediately reject claims based on fears of gang violence and domestic abuse, CNN reported on Thursday. The new policy also directs officers to consider if someone crossed the border illegally when considering their claims.
As these processes play out, thousands of children continue to languish in U.S. government custody.
The government filed a plan to reunite the remaining children, ages fives and older, with their parents during a hearing on July 13. The process will begin “on a rolling basis” and occur at six to eight unspecified locations, according to the Justice Department. There will be another hearing Monday, July 16, where the administration must provide a list of names of parents in immigration custody and their children, the AP reported.
Darlin, who Yancy says has now been in a shelter in Florida for nearly a month and a half, has, according to her mother, hated her time there. “She doesn’t like the food and says she’s getting bullied,” Yancy says. “She keeps crying and telling me she hates it. ‘I want to be with Dad,’ she always says.” (HHS tells Teen Vogue via email that the agency does not comment on specific cases, but that “within 24 hours of arrival, minors are given the opportunity to communicate with a verified parent, guardian or relative living in or outside the United States” and that “every effort is made to ensure minors can communicate (via telephone or video) at least twice per week.”)
In recent days, reports have emerged that allege children are being neglected in government shelters. A report by Reveal News claims that private ICE contractor MVM, Inc. kept dozens of children inside an office building in Phoenix for three weeks with “dark windows, no kitchen, and only a few toilets.”
Most worrying to Yancy is the clear effect the experience has had on Darlin. “She will only say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ or just cry for her father,” Yancy says. “The first day we talked she was asking about everyone — now almost nothing. It’s almost like she’s lost the ability to communicate.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.