The Government Has No Plan for Reuniting the Immigrant Families It Is Tearing Apart
A few days ago, Emily Kephart, a program coördinator at an immigrant-rights group called Kids in Need of Defense, set out to try to find a six-year-old Guatemalan girl who had been separated from her father after arriving in the United States, in May. The pair had been split up as a consequence of the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, which calls for the criminal prosecution of all migrants, including asylum seekers, who cross the border without turning themselves in to officials at so-called ports of entry. Now the father was in an immigration-detention facility in Arizona, awaiting deportation. He had no idea where his child was. Kephart was put on the case after the father called his family, back in a small town outside of Huehuetenango City, in Guatemala’s western highlands, and his family, in turn, contacted a local nonprofit that works with Kids in Need of Defense.
Every undocumented immigrant who enters government custody is assigned what’s called an alien number. But the girl’s family didn’t know hers. Armed with only the girl’s name and birth date, Kephart dialed a 1-800 hotline set up by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.), the federal body in charge of handling unaccompanied immigrant children. This hotline, Kephart told me, is difficult to access for parents who are in a detention facility (hold times can last half an hour; it’s impossible to leave a call-back number) or who have been deported (international calls are expensive, and 1-800 numbers don’t often work from abroad).
“We hit a dead end,” Kephart said. “The person I spoke with just made a note in the file of the girl they thought it might be. But we didn’t get confirmation that we were talking about the same child. They were looking at the record of someone whose first name was spelled differently, and whose date of birth was a month off.”
In the past two months, the government has taken some two thousand immigrant children away from their parents. Under the zero-tolerance policy, border crossers are arrested and charged with a crime before being placed in immigration detention. If they came with their children, the children are turned over to O.R.R. and treated as though they travelled to the U.S. alone. No protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently, for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them. Immigration lawyers, public defenders, and advocates along the border have been trying to fill the void.
Kephart had one other lead. The family in Guatemala had the phone number of a children’s shelter run by O.R.R. where they thought that the girl might be. The number had come from a neighbor who had also been separated from a child in the U.S. When Kephart called that shelter, she was told that the girl wasn’t there but that someone with a similar name and date of birth might be at a facility nearby. Eventually, Kephart tracked down a case manager at the second facility. “I told her, ‘Look, I have this situation. I think you have a girl there,’ ” Kephart told me. “The case manager said, ‘Oh, my God, yes!’ The case manager had a kid whose parents she couldn’t find. She was trying to help, but she’d had nothing to go on.”
Although the zero-tolerance policy was officially announced last month, it has been in effect, in more limited form, since at least last summer. Several months ago, as cases of family separation started surfacing across the country, immigrant-rights groups began calling for the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), which is in charge of immigration enforcement and border security, to create procedures for tracking families after they are split up. At the time, D.H.S. said that it would address the problem, but there is no evidence that it actually did so. Erik Hanshew, a federal public defender in El Paso, told me that the problems begin at the moment of arrest. “Our client gets arrested with his or her child out in the field. Sometimes they go together at the initial processing, sometimes they get separated right then and there for separate processing,” he said. “When we ask the Border Patrol agents at detention hearings a few days after physical arrest about the information they’ve obtained in their investigation, they tell us that the only thing they know is that the person arrested was with a kid. They don’t seem to know gender, age, or name.”
Jennifer Podkul, who is the policy director of Kids in Need of Defense, told me that advocates are trying to piece together information about the whereabouts of children based on the federal charging documents used in the parent’s immigration case. “You can try to figure out where and when the child was apprehended based on that,” she said. “But where the child is being held often has nothing to do with where she and her parent were arrested. The kids get moved around to different facilities.”
The federal departments involved in dealing with separated families have institutional agendas that diverge. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—the agency at the D.H.S. that handles immigrant parents—is designed to deport people as rapidly as it can, while O.R.R.—the office within the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) that assumes custody of the kids—is designed to release children to sponsor or foster families in the U.S. Lately, O.R.R. has been moving more slowly than usual, which has resulted in parents getting deported before their children’s cases are resolved. There’s next to no coördination between D.H.S. and H.H.S. “ice detainees are not allowed to receive calls, so any calls need to be individually arranged,” Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me. “A phone call is not a fix for separation. It is a call, often with a very young child. A call is a Band-Aid.” A number of lawyers that I’ve spoken with described personally pressuring individual deportation officers to delay a parent’s deportation until she can be reunified with her child or, failing that, until children and parents can be deported at roughly the same time.
Late last week, Kephart heard that the Guatemalan family had at last learned where the young girl was. A month after they’d been separated, though, it still wasn’t clear that the father had been informed in detention of his daughter’s location. “I hope that she’s spoken to her father,” Kephart told me. “But I haven’t gotten confirmation yet.” Even if father and daughter have spoken, getting reunited is far from assured. There is no formal process in place to insure that a family that’s been separated at the border gets deported back to their home country together. For now, just knowing the whereabouts of a child is a start. “I have a master’s degree, and I’m fluent in English,” Kephart said. “And it takes me days to figure one of these cases out.”
[Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a 2017 National Award for Education Reporting for “American Studies,” a story about an underground school for undocumented immigrants. He has twice been a finalist for a Livingston Award. His writing and reporting have also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Atavist, Oxford American, and The Nation.]