Federal officials released a plan Saturday evening to reunify migrant children with their parents in a mass detention center near Brownsville, Texas.
However, it remains unclear how long it will take to bring parents back together with their children. And the statement from to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates the reunification process may not happen until after a parent's deportation proceedings are complete.
Under the policy, a parent in deportation proceedings must also request that their child be removed with them. It is unclear how often parents have chosen to be deported without their child, possibly in an attempt to save a child from violence in their home country.
It is also unclear how many parents, amid the Trump administration's forced family separations, were deported without first being informed of where their children were or how to get them back.
The DHS fact-sheet on the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy and family reunification says that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “dedicated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center as the primary family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody.”
Under the plan, a process has been established “to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults” are reunited with their children before removal, the statement said.
"This process is well coordinated," the statement said.
The announcement comes amid an emotional debate over immigration that has grown increasingly heated as thousands of children have been separated from their parents or other adults at the border under the zero-tolerance policy.
In less than two months, at least 2,000 children were separated from their parent or adults under the policy.
Political, faith, human-rights leaders and scores of people protesting have called the family separations immoral and un-American.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump under national and international political pressure, reversed his administration's policy for separating children from their parent or adult after they crossed the border illegally.
But Trump's abrupt reversal detailed in an enforcement order came with few details on reunifying families and raised widespread concerns about jailing children with their parents in detention centers.
Some legal analysts said Trump’s order may run afoul of the 1997 Flores vs. Reno settlement. The agreement requires that migrants under 18 be released “without unnecessary delay” if they have a family member to stay with. Additionally, the settlement requires any minors who must remain in immigration detention to be placed “in the least restrictive setting appropriate.”
In his executive order, Trump directed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek a modification to the settlement that may allow the government to detain families together.
As of June 20, HHS has 2,053 children separated from their parent or guardian, according to the statement. The children are in HHS-funded facilities.
Officials are working with reunite "every minor and parent or guardian," according to the statement.
Seventeen percent of the children in the HHS-funded facilities were sent there as a result of the zero-tolerance policy, while remaining 83 percent arrived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian, officials said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reunited 522 migrant children who were separated from their parents as a result of the zero-tolerance policy.
Officials said that there is a "small number of children who were separated for reasons other than zero tolerance that will remain separated."
According to the statement, children are generally kept from their parent or guardian if a familial relationship cannot be confirmed, an adult is considered a threat to the safety of the child or the adult is a criminal.
Immigration and human-rights attorneys have said they've been concerned that many children may never be reunited with their parent because migrant parents fleeing violence often do not have documentation to prove familial relationships.
Human-rights advocates and attorneys reported accounts of migrant parents being denied access to their children.
A Phoenix attorney said she has a female client in her early 20s at the Eloy Detention Center. At a recent meeting, the young woman told attorney Stephanie Corcoran an account of an officer using her as a translator for a distraught Spanish-speaking woman.
The woman asked, “Can you ask to have them find out where my child is?"
Corcoran said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer said, “When you get deported, you can figure that out.”
Attorneys also have sought clarification as to who would be constituted a criminal under Trump's policies, a status that could also prevent reunification if the very act of crossing the border is considered a crime by federal officials under Trump's hardliner stance on immigration enforcement.
ICE has posted information in all its sites advising detained parents who are trying to locate or speak with their children in HHS custody to call the Detention Reporting and Information Line for assistance. According to the statement, it will be staffed by live operators Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Operators will forward information from parents to HHS, and ICE and HHS will coordinate the review of the parents "custodial data to identify where each child is located, verify the parent/child relationship, and set up regular communication and removal coordination, if necessary."
Parents or guardians trying to determine whether their child is in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement or HHS Administration for Children and Families should contact the ORR National Call Center (www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/orr-national-call-center) at 1-800-203-7001, or via email information@ORRNCC.com.
Immigrant families in the spotlight
According to the statement, within 24 hours of arriving at a HHS-funded facility, children are supposed to be given an opportunity to speak with a "vetted parent, guardian or relative."
Children should be able to talk with their parent or guardian via phone or video at least twice per week.
Each ICE field site has coordinators managing the cases throughout the immigration court proceedings. And ICE maintains a public online site that can be used to locate people detained by ICE
The plan lists steps that ICE has outlined to manage the reunification process:
- Implemented an identification mechanism to ensure ongoing tracking of family members through the detention and removal process;
- Designated detention locations for separated parents and will enhance current processes to ensure communication with children in HHS custody;
- Worked closely with foreign consulates to ensure that travel documents are issued for both the parent and child at time of removal; and
- Coordinated with HHS for the reuniting of the child prior to the parents’ departure from the United States.