Originally published by POLITICO
As a judge began sentencing more than six dozen immigrants for illegal entry on Monday, one woman spoke up to ask: “What’s going to happen to my daughter?”
Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker, presiding over the hearing in Texas federal court, could tell her only that reunification with her child was out of his hands.
“Hopefully, they’ll get you to her,” Hacker told the woman, who was communicating through a translator, before sentencing her to time served in detention and paving the way for her likely deportation.
She wasn’t alone. Of an estimated 81 migrants whose cases Hacker handled in a packed courtroom in this Texas border town, 21 informed the court through their public defender that they had been separated from their children after illegally crossing into the United States.
“I can’t promise you anything,” Hacker told a father asking about his son before receiving a sentence of time served. “That’s all up to another part of the government.”
All but 16 of the migrants whose cases the court heard on Monday were sentenced to time served in custody, and all but five had been apprehended since Thursday. But it’s far from clear that the government will be able to reunite the parents with their children amid a Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy that prosecutes even first-time border-crossers and separates families in the process.
A flyer that the Border Patrol distributes to migrants held at its McAllen processing center before they go to court tells parents that the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services “can take steps to facilitate reunification with your child(ren).”
But that’s no easy task, and the number of separated children is only climbing — adding to the political firestorm in Washington.
President Donald Trump continued to falsely blame Democrats for the practice on Monday, even as he vowed that the nation would “not be a migrant camp and it won’t be a refugee holding facility.”
Meanwhile, more GOP lawmakers were beginning to join a unified Democratic Party in condemning the administration for splitting up families, with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse on Monday becoming the latest Republican to press for an end to the practice.
More than 2,300 children were separated from mid-April to early June, according to DHS figures reported on Monday. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” effort on April 6.
During the Monday hearing, Hacker informed each defendant — each shackled at the waist and ankles, with their shoelaces removed — of their legal rights and the effect that a guilty plea could have on their future ability to obtain U.S. citizenship. For more than 90 minutes, he asked each to individually confirm they understood their rights.
Eleven of the migrants were between 18 and 21 years old; 18 of them were women. They hailed from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Three told the court that they had crossed into the U.S. by swimming, while the rest made the journey by raft or boat.
Their group prosecution is not a result of the Trump administration’s new policy. Large-scale hearings to expedite sentencing are an offshoot of a joint immigration effort by DHS and the Department of Justice known as Operation Streamline, which began in 2005.
Hacker sentenced all but 16 of the defendants to time served, which includes a $10 cost assessment and then likely leads to deportation, while the remaining defendants received steeper sentences based on an existing criminal record or multiple previous deportations.
As he handed down that sentence to one portion of the group, a migrant woman exercised her right to inform the court that the gender of her child was improperly listed. She was separated from a daughter, she said, not a son.