EL PASO, Texas (CN) — As the deadline approaches for the federal government to reunify separated children with their parents, immigrant advocates in Texas say families trying to navigate the immigration system in the aftermath of the “zero tolerance” policy still face many challenges.
At a press conference on Tuesday, representatives from four legal aid groups said many reunited families remain in a state of limbo as they attempt to navigate confusing information and, at times, conflicting and coercive orders, from the federal government.
“These moments of reunification and release are incredibly chaotic, often happening in the middle of the night, and we want to make sure people understand what their obligations are,” Royce Murray, the policy director at the American Immigration Council, said.
The separations are a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The policy, which was repealed last month, sent adults who illegally crossed the border to be criminally prosecuted, while their children went to shelters sometimes located across the country.
A federal judge in California has ordered that all children who were separated from their parents when crossing the border be reunited with them by July 26.
With the deadline fast approaching, it’s not clear whether the government will make that goal.
The government has identified more than 2,500 children ages five to 17 who have been separated from their parents.
According to the Department of Justice, more than 1,400 children have either been reunified with their parents or have been cleared for reunification. An additional 217 have been released to a sponsor in the U.S.
But the government said the reunification status of 917 children remains unknown — either because their parents have already been deported, have criminal records, have waived their rights to reunification or require further evaluation of their cases.
El Paso is one of the primary detention sites for parents – and it’s where many are being reunited with their children before they’re either released with ankle monitors or sent to family detention centers, said Murray.
But the process of figuring out the reunited families’ asylum cases has been tough, Murray said, as the immigrants don’t have access to attorneys while detained.
She said some parents have reported Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pressured them to sign paperwork promising they wouldn’t fight their case, claiming it would be the fastest way to see their children again.
“It’s not entirely clear if any of the paperwork signed by these parents was done in a knowing and willful way given the duress they were under by being separated from their children and the total lack of information and legal council that was available to them at that time,” said Murray.
The paperwork offered to the immigrants was not available in Spanish, nor were they allowed to retain copies, she said.
Katie Shepherd, an attorney with the Immigration Justice Campaign, said 500 parents are still detained in El Paso waiting to be transported to detention facilities outside of San Antonio.
One of those facilities is the Karnes County Residential Facility, located about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio. According to Shepherd, 55 fathers have been reunited with their children there.
But she said reunifications haven’t been easy. Some parents report their children were returned to them infested with lice and wearing dirty clothes.
“We have heard reports that kids have lost so much weight during the time of separation that they are almost unrecognizable to their parents,” Shepherd said.
The Texas Tribune reported that new court declarations from hundreds of children and adults in federal custody detail long waits for medical care, few legal resources, language barriers, and encounters with officers who told them they weren’t welcome and would soon be deported.
Federal officials pointed the Texas Tribune toward a court document from last month finding that Customs and Border Patrol complies with the legal requirement for the treatment of kids.
But the advocates worry most about the psychological damage wrought by the separations.
From the parking lot of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, Dilley Pro Bono Council Managing Attorney Shalyn Fluharty told reporters her organization is working with 31 mothers who have been reunited with their children.
Fluharty said some parents have already been issued final orders for deportation while their children have yet to see an asylum officer, which means they could be separated again.
“We cannot engage in conversations with our client that have anything to do with the idea or possibility of separation because the children and the parents completely crumble in tears,” said Fluharty.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that David Jennings, an official with the Department of Homeland Security, urged a federal judge to swiftly deport families who had been reunited, claiming it costs more than $300 per day to house each immigrant.
But Fluharty said the government should give families time to heal and figure out the status of their cases before they make critical legal decisions.
“These decisions are impossible for our clients to make now,” she said.