WASHINGTON — The Trump administration told a federal court on Tuesday that more than 450 migrant parents whose children were separated from them are no longer in the United States, raising questions about whether the parents fully understood that they were being deported without their children.
The parents — nearly one-fifth of the 2,551 migrants whose children were taken from them after crossing the southwest border — were either swiftly deported or somehow left the country without their children, government lawyers said.
The exact number, 463, is still “under review,” the lawyers added, and could change. However, the disclosure was the first time the government has acknowledged that hundreds of migrant families face formidable barriers of bureaucracy and distance that were unforeseen in the early stages of the government’s “zero-tolerance” policy on border enforcement.
The government’s previous estimate of the number of such cases was just 12, though that applied only to parents of the youngest children.
“We are extremely worried that a large percentage of parents may already have been removed without their children,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the government’s handling of migrant children in a lawsuit. He said further clarification was needed to understand just what has happened.
Facing a court-ordered deadline of Thursday, federal agencies must reunite more than 1,500 migrant parents with their children within about 48 hours. Those parents are just a portion of the total number who were separated: those who have been deemed eligible after a background check and a confirmation of where they are in the United States or abroad.
Returning children even to eligible parents has been messy and has revealed challenges facing the government as it complies with the judicial order. For example, reunifications at the Port Isabel detention center in South Texas screeched to a halt on Sunday after it was locked down for five hours, according to Carlos Garcia, an immigration lawyer who was prevented from entering the building to meet with his clients. The lockdown resulted from an accidental miscounting of detainees there, Mr. Garcia said.
It was only the latest hiccup at Port Isabel, where parents, children and their advocates have had to wait for hours, or even days, for reunification. “It’s a mess,” a person familiar with the reunification process said on Tuesday, adding that “the wait times have been enormous.”
The person said that the children’s escorts have had to request hotel rooms, which have been approved by the Health and Human Services Department, the agency that oversees care of the separated children.
Among the migrants inside Port Isabel during Sunday’s lockdown was Irma, a 35-year-old woman from Honduras separated for more than two months from her two teenage sons, Fernando and Jonatan.
Irma, who asked that only her first name be used, hadn’t thought a reunion would happen. A federal official had told her she would never see the boys again.
“It was horrible, horrible,” Irma said through tears on Tuesday, inside the airport in McAllen, Tex. The family was about to board a flight to Baltimore.
The hurdles that remain in the reunification process were discussed at a status hearing on Tuesday, where little more was explained about the number of parents who appear to have left or have been sent out of the country without their children.
The judge who ordered the reunifications, Dana M. Sabraw of Federal District Court in San Diego, called the situation the “unfortunate” result of a policy that was introduced “without forethought to reunification or keeping track of people.”
Some immigrant advocates said many of the migrant parents had agreed to be deported quickly, believing that doing so would speed up reunification — and perhaps not understanding that they would be leaving their children behind.
“Our attorney volunteers working with detained separated parents are seeing lots of people who signed forms that they didn’t understand,” said Taylor Levy, a legal coordinator at Annunciation House in El Paso, which assists migrants. “They thought the only way they would see their child again is by agreeing to deportation.”
“It is particularly problematic for indigenous Guatemalans who are not fluent in Spanish and were not given explanations in their native languages,” Ms. Levy added.
Border authorities are pressuring people to accept speedy deportation, immigration lawyers and advocates say.
“We are aware of instances in which parents have felt coerced and didn’t fully understand the consequences of signing or did not feel they had a choice in the matter,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which represents migrants.
In an attempt to stanch the flow of undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration in May launched a policy under which every adult caught entering the country illegally was subject to criminal prosecution. As part of the crackdown, some 3,000 children were removed from their parents.
Following an international outcry, President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 halting the separations. Judge Sabraw then issued an order that all the families be reunified within about 30 days — a deadline that expires on Thursday.
The authorities have been transporting parents and children to staging areas in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. After reunification, a variety of nonprofit organizations help the families reach various destinations around the country to await further hearings in immigration court. Hundreds of volunteers are involved in the effort, which includes offering temporary accommodation, airfare and other assistance.
But the swift pace of reunifications has also prompted concerns that the legal cases, health or safety of the parents and children could suffer. The Legal Aid Society of New York filed habeas petitions on Tuesday preventing nine separated children from being moved out of New York until they and their lawyers can contact their parents to determine what’s best for the children. The petitions were transferred to San Diego and combined with the lawsuit there over family separation.
The court filings explained the cases of four siblings who want to be reunited with their mother, but not if it would lead to them all being deported to Honduras, where they fear for their lives. The filings also tells of a 9-year-old girl from El Salvador who does not want to return to a detention center where she was traumatized after being made to eat spoiled food, and of the mother of a 9-year-old boy from Honduras, who fears that if he joins her in detention, he won’t get his medication for hyperactivity.
The filings, which claim the rights of the children are being denied, were made because of a lawsuit Legal Aid filed last week in Federal District Court in Manhattan that ordered immigration authorities to give 48 hours’ notice to lawyers before moving clients. That case, too, was moved to federal court in San Diego.
Judge Sabraw last week temporarily suspended the deportation of reunited families, but immigration lawyers have reported that many of their clients have been funneled to family detention facilities rather than released, which indicates that they could be deported once the judge’s stay is lifted.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the government does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Immigration officials have said that all the parents who were deported without their children made an informed decision to do so, and had agreed in writing to leave their offspring in the United States. The administration said that bilingual workers and interpreters are on hand to help.
Some Central American migrants are illiterate. And many migrants from the highlands of Guatemala, where several dialects are spoken, do not speak Spanish.
The government said in its filing that it has reunited 879 parents with their children. Another 538 parents have been cleared for reunions and are still awaiting transportation.
In accordance with the court order, the administration first began by reunifying 102 parents whose children are 5 or younger. It is currently reunifying the larger group, which includes minors age 5 to 17.
In cases where parents choose to leave the country without their child, they appoint a sponsor — typically a relative — to care for the child. The sponsors undergo extensive background checks before they can take custody. In the meantime, the minors remain in shelters.
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