Three weeks after Trump put an end to his administration’s cruel policy of separating immigrant families at the border, much remains unclear. This is unsurprising, considering that officials had no real plan for how to reunite nearly 3,000 children with the families they’d been torn from, but advocates say the scale of the chaos is shocking.
While the administration has been opaque in providing details about the specifics of family reunifications, some information has emerged. Here’s what we know so far.
In late June, a federal court ordered the Trump administration to reunite every family they’d separated at the border within 30 days. For children under age 5, the deadline was even shorter — the government was given until Tuesday, July 10, to reunite them with their parents.
Two days after the court-imposed deadline, the administration says it has completed initial reunifications, with 57 out of 103 children under age 5 released from government custody. (By Tuesday’s deadline,
reports showed that just four children were confirmed as reunited with their families. This is because, according to the New York Times, the process was plagued by computer glitches and logistical issues.)
The Trump administration has deemed the remaining 46 children under 5 “ineligible” for reunification with their parents. This is a shift from a Department of Justice filing from July 10, which stated that 27 of the children were ineligible, and 20 children were eligible but not by the initial deadline, due to “legitimate logistical impediments that render timely compliance excusable or impossible.” These impediments include the deportations of 12 parents, as well as ongoing safety and screening procedures for the remaining eight.
One of the reasons this process is so confusing and difficult to coordinate, immigration attorneys say, is that parents and children are in the custody of different agencies: Parents are being held by ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security, while children are being held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
When explaining the delay to reporters, Chris Meekins, a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services, echoed the president’s incendiary rhetoric, citing unfounded safety concerns about immigrants: “In some cases, if we had just reunited kids with the adults, we would be putting them in the care of a rapist, a kidnapper, a child abuser, and someone who was charged with murder in their home nation.”
While the administration is currently focused on undoing its mess for the youngest children, thousands of kids above age 5 remain in government custody. Authorities are currently scrambling to identify familial connections. Making matters worse, in hundreds of cases, records linking children to their parents have disappeared or been destroyed, two officials of the Department of Homeland Security told the Times. (They said the department believed it would make more sense to track migrants individually once they were separated, rather than identifying them with family units.)
The government’s rough plan is to move both parents and children in waves, two immigration officials told the Times. Some of the parents will be gathered in immigration jails, where the children will meet them. Other parents — many with children under the age of 5 — have already been moved to jails close to the shelters where their children are being held.
Judge Dana Sabraw, the federal judge who ordered the administration to release the children in late June, said Tuesday at a status conference that he is dissatisfied with the delay. “These are firm deadlines; they are not aspirational goals,” he said. “I would like the process to continue as expeditiously as it has been with paramount focus on the children’s welfare.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is blaming the court’s “extreme” deadlines rather than its own incompetence and cruel policies.
The ACLU told CNN it believes as many as ten more children under the age of 5 might not be on the government’s list, and said it would provide those names to the government to investigate.
Reporters have also called into question the government’s initial figures about how many children have been separated from their parents. Unofficial totals that factor in separations before Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” became official estimate that the number of children affected could be far larger than the near-3,000 the government has acknowledged: The Intercept estimated as many as 3,700 in June, and McClatchy reported as many as 6,000.
No matter how difficult the reunification process proves, greater challenges lie ahead. Many migrants will inevitably be located several states away from their extended families, lacking money for transportation to return home, or even for basic necessities.
And mental-health experts have said that these family separations pose both short- and long-term psychological risks for those affected, especially young children. Brenda Jones Harden, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, told the New York Times, “Many of these kids will think, ‘There’s something wrong with me, that’s why my parents abandoned me.’”
Pediatricians have similarly warned that these traumatic experiences could lead to life-long physiological changes. In a statement in May, Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned that “highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can carry lifelong consequences for children.”
As families reunited after weeks apart, observers said they could already see a marked difference in children who’d been detained alone. An ACLU representative described seeing a 3-year-old who was waiting to see his family again as “just a shell of himself.”
“He’s not really talking,” she told CNN. “He’s not the spunky 3-year-old that he always is. He’s hardly saying anything or crying.”
This post will be updated as we learn more details. To see ways you can help immigrant families and children, click here.
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