News Immigration

US Fails to Reunite Detained, Deported Parents With Their Young Children (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the court order requiring separated families be reunited, said in a Tuesday status conference that the deadlines in place are "firm deadlines" and not "aspirational goals."

UPDATE, July 13, 10:40 a.m.: In a federal court filing, the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the court to require the Department of Homeland Security to reunite the deported parents with their young children “within seven days of their obtaining travel documents, and to pay for mental health counseling for children who suffered trauma,” Politico reported on Thursday. “Our interest is in reuniting [all of the children who remain separated from] their families as quickly as possible, and making sure that these families are able to get the services they need,” the ACLU’s Stacy Sullivan wrote on the organization’s blog.

Despite the federal government’s legal deadline to reunify dozens of children separated from their parents as part of President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, there is still no clear plan in place for reuniting children with parents who are in detention or have been deported.

The federal government scrambled Tuesday to reunite families, conducting reunifications at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities across the country, Vox reported, but no movement was made for 12 children under the age of 5 whose parents were already deported. There has also been no arrangements made for eight parents in federal criminal custody and two parents with state warrants currently in state custody.

In states like Michigan, where an estimated 58 children taken from their parents at the border have been placed in foster care, there has been no direction from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about how to reunite children with parents in detention. As recently as last week, Dona Abbott, the branch director of refugee services for Bethany Christian Services, told Rewire.News she wasn’t “real sure” about how reunification would work for children with detained parents because none of the children in the organization’s care that have been reunified had parents who were detained. Bethany, which has a history of coercive adoption policies and discrimination against LGBTQ couples, also has children in its care whose parents were deported without them.

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The parents of the 12 children under the age of 5 were deported either because the court order requiring family reunification went into effect after their deportation or because they signed deportation orders knowing they would be deported without their children. ICE has given parents with valid asylum claims a form that gives them two options, NBC reported: “leave the country with your kids—or leave the country without them.” The Trump administration requires parents to remain detained as they await the decision on their asylum claim, keeping them separated from their children indefinitely. 

ICE also has identified parents separated from their children as “eligible” or “ineligible” for family reunification. Those ineligible for family reunification include five adults who are reportedly not the parent of the child in question, according to the federal government. The Huffington Post also reported that eight other parents deemed ineligible had “serious criminal histories.” ICE reportedly had evidence of child abuse by one parent, and another parent had plans to live in a home with another adult who had an outstanding warrant for sexual abuse of a child.

Members of the Trump administration have maintained that adults and children separated at the border are not actually related, and parents have been forced to pay for DNA tests to certify familial relationships, while also asserting that the adults migrating with their children are bad parents.

“It should be noted the perils to which these parents subject their children. Hundreds of aliens die every year trying to make it to the border to illegally enter this country,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in June. “In many cases, children are trafficked, abused, or recruited by criminal gangs. No one should subject their child to this treacherous journey.”

The Trump administration offers no context for the many reasons why Central Americans are migrating to the United States as asylum seekers, while also making it harder for Central Americans in particular to claim asylum and prosecuting them for migrating, with many parents made ineligible for family reunification because they are detained.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the court order requiring separated families be reunified, said in a Tuesday status conference that the deadlines in place are “firm deadlines” and not “aspirational goals,” according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union. 

It remains unknown if ICE will make any effort to reunite detained parents with their children, but the Trump administration must submit a joint status report to Sabraw by July 12 in anticipation of another court hearing on July 13. The report must outline the administration’s progress reunifying all children separated from their parents as part of the zero-tolerance policy, which encompasses an estimated 3,000 children. ICE did not respond to Rewire.News’ request for comment on the impending deadline or whether there was a framework in place for reunifying detained parents with their children.

As parents have been reunited with their children—who were detained in a patchwork of foster homes, group homes, and shelters that contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement—they are shedding light on the inhumane conditions their children have been subjected to. As part of court filings, one mother revealed her child was returned to her with lice and “looking as if he hadn’t been bathed in weeks, and with irrevocable changes to his personality,” Vox reported

Children under the age of 5 are also being released with ankle monitors, ensuring federal immigration agencies are tracking their whereabouts at all times. Advocates have long pushed against the framing that prolonged detention and ankle monitors are the only options for asylum-seeking families. In 2015, Mary Small, the policy director of Detention Watch Network, told Rewire.News that the choice between incarcerating asylum seekers and releasing them in ankle monitors is “not a choice the U.S. government is backed into.”

“There are other options available to [the U.S. government]. We need to keep our eye on the bigger picture and not get sucked into debating whether these tiny, incremental changes are improvements. We need to focus on whether or not the government is acting appropriately in terms of its obligations to asylum seekers,” Small said at the time. 

Small is referring to community-based alternatives to ankle monitors and detention that would help asylum seekers and other immigrant communities make sense of the complicated immigration system without being subjected to detention. This would entail grassroots organizations or community-based groups providing undocumented immigrants with information related to their case in their language, resources to find an attorney, and assistance showing up for legal proceedings.

While the call to “abolish ICE” gets louder, with support coming from some politicians, the chances of community-based alternatives to detention and ankle monitors appears unlikely under the Trump administration.

Federal authorities must reunify all 3,000 children separated from their parents at the border by July 26.

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