A report filed before a hearing in federal court suggests that nearly one-fifth of 2,551 parents whose children were taken from them after crossing the border were either swiftly deported before they could be reunited with their children or somehow opted to leave the country without them.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to tell a federal court Tuesday that more than 450 migrant parents whose children were separated from them are no longer in the United States, raising questions about whether the parents fully understood that they were being deported without their children.
A report filed before a hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego suggests that nearly one-fifth of 2,551 parents whose children were taken from them after crossing the southwest border were either swiftly deported before they could be reunited with their children or somehow opted to leave the country without them.
The number could change since the Justice Department in its filing states that the cases are “under review.” However, it is the first time the government has disclosed that hundreds of migrant families may now face formidable barriers of bureaucracy and distance that were unforeseen in the early stages of the government’s “zero-tolerance” policy on border enforcement.
The government’s previous estimate of the number of such cases was just 12, though that applied only to parents of the youngest children.
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“We are extremely worried that a large percentage of parents may already have been removed without their children,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the government’s handling of migrant children. He said further clarification is needed to understand just what has happened.
Some immigrant advocates said many migrant parents have agreed to be deported quickly with the understanding that it would speed up their ability to recover their children — perhaps not understanding that they would be leaving their children behind.
“Our attorney volunteers working with detained separated parents are seeing lots of people who signed forms that they didn’t understand,” said Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, which assists migrants. “They thought the only way they would see their child again is by agreeing to deportation.”
“It is particularly problematic for indigenous Guatemalans who are not fluent in Spanish and were not given explanations in their native languages,” she added.
In an attempt to staunch the flow of immigrants, the Trump administration in May launched a policy under which every adult caught entering the country illegally was potentially subject to criminal prosecution. As part of the crackdown, some 3,000 children were removed from their parents.
Following an international outcry, President Donald Trump signed an executive order June 20 halting the separations. Judge Dana M. Sabraw in San Diego then issued an order that reunification of all families take place within about 30 days.
The judge had set a July 26 deadline. Authorities identified 2,551 parents eligible to be reunified with their children. A number of others were deemed ineligible for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they had a criminal history.
Authorities have been transporting parents and children to staging areas in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. After reunification, the families are assisted by a variety of nonprofit organizations to reach various destinations around the country to await further hearings in immigration court. Hundreds of volunteers are involved in the effort, which includes offering temporary accommodation, airfare and other assistance.
The judge last week temporarily suspended the deportation of reunited families, but immigration lawyers have reported that many of their clients have been funneled to family detention facilities, rather than released, an indication that they could be in the pipeline for deportation once the judge’s stay is lifted.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the government does not comment on ongoing litigation, but the department’s lawyers were expected to provide further clarity during a status conference with Sabraw later Tuesday.
On Friday, the judge had asked the government to provide information about the total number of parents deported and under what circumstances.
Immigration lawyers and advocates have complained that border authorities are pressuring people to accept speedy deportation from the country with the promise that this would allow them to be quickly reunited with their children.
“We are aware of instances in which parents have felt coerced and didn’t fully understand the consequences of signing or did not feel they had a choice in the matter,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which represents migrants.
Immigration officials have said that all the parents who were deported without their children made an informed decision to do so, and had agreed in writing to leave their offspring in the United States. The administration said that bilingual staff and interpreters are on hand to help.
Some Central American migrants are illiterate. And many migrants from the highlands of Guatemala, where several dialects are spoken, do not speak Spanish.
The government said in its filing that it has reunited 879 parents with their children. Another 538 parents have been cleared for reunions and are still awaiting transportation.
In accordance with the court order, the administration first began by reunifying 102 parents whose children are 5 or younger. It is currently reunifying the larger group, which includes minors age 5 to 17.
In cases where parents choose to leave the country without their child, they appoint a sponsor — typically a relative — to care for the child. The sponsors undergo extensive background checks before they can take custody. In the meantime, the minors remain in shelters.