Originally published by The NY Times
The Trump administration said Thursday that it had complied with a judge’s order and reunited all of the eligible children under the age of 5 that it had in custody with their migrant parents. But Nazario Jacinto-Carrillo’s desperate voice and haunting questions, repeated over and over on a phone line from Guatemala, made clear that the crisis over child separations remained far from resolved.
“When are they going to give them back?” Mr. Jacinto-Carrillo asked of the thousands of children still in custody. He had trekked to the United States with his 5-year-old daughter, Filomena. He was deported. She remains in foster care in New York, where she recently turned 6. “I want her back in Guatemala,” he pleaded.
Administration officials told reporters that the government had reunited 57 of the 103 migrant children under the age of 5, complying with a judicial order. The other 46 were deemed “ineligible” for a variety of reasons. Some of their parents had been accused of crimes. One parent had a communicable disease. In a dozen cases, the parents had been deported already without their children, making their reunification more challenging.
And that’s just the youngest of the child detainees. There are nearly 3,000 children in detention across the United States, the vast majority from Central America, who fall between ages 5 and 17. Reunification with their parents is now underway as the government scrambles to meet a court-imposed deadline of July 26. Mr. Jacinto-Carrillo’s daughter, given her age, appeared to be in the second group.
Exactly how the government plans to reunify parents such as Mr. Jacinto-Carrillo, who were sent back home without their children, remains to be seen. Officials said they had no plans to allow the parents to re-enter the country.
“We don’t have the legal authority to bring these individuals back into the country for reunification purposes,” said Matthew Albence, executive director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the detention and deportation division.
But there are ways around restrictions on permitting deported parents to return to the United States. The Obama administration, in the rare cases in which such a separation occurred, issued “humanitarian parole” to the mother or father, allowing her or him to enter the United States for the purpose of picking up the child.
In a joint status update filed Thursday in the Federal District Court of San Diego, the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the government over family separations, said that it is not aware of any specific steps the Trump administration has taken to locate parents who have been deported without their young children.
The government requested a flexible timetable for locating, contacting and reuniting those families.
Eleven of the 12 children under 5 whose parents were deported are from Central America, and one is from Romania, according to a person who has seen the list.
Reuniting the families also has been challenging for logistical reasons. Many children were sent to facilities thousands of miles away from their parents, and some are too young or scared to provide accurate information about their parents or their journeys. In New York, Phoenix and other cities where reunions took place this week, the authorities had flown in parents from around the country.
To speed up the reunions, the government is expected to no longer insist on fingerprinting all adults in a household where a child would live, or require home visits by a social worker. Instead, the authorities will release children to a parent once a familial tie has been established, provided the parent or guardian does not have a criminal record.
Nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents largely under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border enforcement program, which resulted in the criminal prosecutions of their parents for illegal entry. The children were removed from their parents, with whom they had crossed the border, and placed in dozens of government-licensed shelters and foster care homes while their parents remained in detention.
Of the migrants older than 5, the government officials would not say Thursday how many would be deemed ineligible to be reunited with their families.
Most of the families separated from their children said they were fleeing gang or domestic violence in Central America and planned to seek asylum in the United States.
It has been one month since Mario, a migrant from Honduras, was separated from his daughter, Fabiola, 10. He was released from immigration detention on June 24. He has since delivered a plethora of documents to the authorities to prove parentage, but so far has not recovered his child.
“I am in bad shape because, when I was released, I was told I would be reunited with her,” said Mario, who is in El Paso at a temporary migrant shelter just 10 blocks from where his daughter is living, with other children removed from their parents.
Having heard that the government had started turning over younger children to parents, he said, “I ask God that soon I will also be reunited with my daughter. I hope to experience this joy soon.”
Last month, President Trump ended the policy of separating families amid outcry from the public and political leaders on both sides of the aisle. But his executive order on June 20 did not outline steps for reunification.
Shortly before the government officially announced its “zero-tolerance” policy in May, it issued a memorandum setting stringent new rules for vetting parents, relatives and others who wished to recover a child from government custody.
Among other things, the memo said that the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the minors, must collect the name, date of birth, address, fingerprint and identification of a potential sponsor, who might be the parent, and of “all adult members in the potential sponsor’s household.” Administration officials said the measures were intended to protect the children from trafficking.
The A.C.L.U. argued in court that the lengthy procedures were unnecessary, given that the parents had already been fingerprinted at the border and that the children had been forcibly removed from them.
Advocates said they began seeing signs that the administration would waive the requirements on Wednesday: Many young children were released to their parents despite the fact that the adults had not fulfilled previously stipulated steps, like fingerprinting. The government performed DNA tests on some, but not all, of them, some advocates said.
For Mr. Jacinto-Carrillo, speaking from Huehuetenango, a town in the western highlands of Guatemala, another day had passed without his daughter.
He says that ICE agents told him when he was deported that his daughter would be put on a plane to rejoin him within two weeks. But two weeks passed, then another, then another. His questions remain. “Why haven’t we heard any news?” he asked.
Mr. Jacinto-Carillo is illiterate. His only news comes from the radio and phone calls that he makes every three or four days to the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles, whose employees have told him to be patient. He did not know, for example, that the American government was reporting progress in the reunification of children.
“You’re telling me that the government returned all of the children on Tuesday?” he asked.
He receives updates about Filomena from her social worker in New York. The girl refuses to speak to her parents, or to her 2-year-old brother, who cries for her. The social worker assures Mr. Jacinto-Carrillo that Filomena is being well taken care of, but that does little to relieve his anxiety about a detention that he considers an abduction.
“Do you know how many days?” he asked.