A day after President Trump signed an executive order ending his policy of separating of families at the border, which he’d falsely claimed that only Congress could fix, his administration remained in a state of confusion. Federal officials couldn’t get their stories straight on how families apprehended at the border will be detained going forward, or whether the parents will still face criminal prosecution under the “zero tolerance” policy.
On one issue, however, the First Family said they were in total agreement with lawmakers and activists: The roughly 2,300 children already taken from their parents should be reunited with their families. During a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, President Trump said he was directing the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice “to work together to keep illegal immigrant families together during the immigration process and reunite these previously separated groups.”
First Daughter/adviser Ivanka Trump tweeted:
And during a visit to a Texas shelter housing some of the separated children, Melania Trump thanked social service workers caring for them, adding, “I’d also like to ask you how I can help to — these children, to reunite with their families, as quickly as possible.”
Despite what the Trumps said, their actions seem more in line with the message Melania wore on the back of her jacket.
The White House provided no further details on Trump’s directive, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo said federal officials wouldn’t even tell him how many of the children had been sent to the state’s facilities.
Border Patrol can hold unaccompanied children — as the children were designated after being taken from their guardians — for 72 hours, and then they must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Facilities at the border are already overcrowded, so children are being shipped to temporary housing all over the country. HHS oversees an estimated 100 shelters in 17 states.
Government officials said they gave parents a flier with a toll-free number for ORR when they were separated from their children, but Jodi Goodwin, an attorney in Harlingen, Texas, told the Washington Post that none of her clients received the paper. She’s been trying to reunite more than two dozen Central American mothers with their children, but has yet to locate a single child.
Megan McKenna, the senior director of communications for Kids in Need of Defense, said the phone number is “a black hole, as far as we can tell.” Parents have reported being put on hold for long periods of time — a huge problem for those who are still in detention center themselves, and have limited phone access. Lawyers said those who did get through found officials unwilling to tell them anything about their children.
Since adults are a higher deportation priority than children, their cases are usually processed more quickly. That leads to further complications, as parents deported without their children are left trying to navigate the complex U.S. immigration system from another country.
“Either the government wasn’t thinking at all about how they were going to put these families back together, or they decided they just didn’t care,” Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told the Post. The legal-aid organization is representing more than 300 parents and has only located two children so far.
Lawyers from across the country have shown up in Texas to volunteer their services. Since government resources proved unhelpful, they’ve been collecting information about the children from their parents and passing that on to legal organizations that represent undocumented children.
The American Civil Liberties Union hopes to force the Trump administration to create a system for reuniting separated families. The ACLU is part of a class-action lawsuit filed last month that challenges the family-separation policy, and the group said that on Friday it will urge a federal district court judge in California to issue an order requiring the Trump administration to reunite the families immediately.
“Now that so much time has gone by, we see how young the children are, how many of them there are, the horrendous trauma they are suffering — we will be asking the judge to issue an order as soon as he can,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, told reporters.
But for now, parents are facing a long and difficult path, even if they’ve located their child. The New York Times spoke to Angelica, a 31-year-old asylum applicant from Guatemala who said she hasn’t seen her 8-year-old daughter since they were separated at an immigration detention facility in Arizona in early May. After passing through detention facilities in Las Vegas and Aurora, Colorado, Angelica was released this week on $1,500 bond and is stying with a friend.
On Thursday she learned that her daughter is in a facility on the southern border, and she was able to talk to her on the phone for 15 minutes. She doesn’t know the name of the facility or what city it’s in. A social worker told her she can only call twice a week, she can’t visit, she’ll need to fill out a lot of paperwork, and she shouldn’t expect to see her daughter again for another month or two.
“It feels like an eternity to know I won’t be able to see my daughter and I can’t hold her,” she told a reporter through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m going to die. I feel powerless.”