Miss­ing chil­dren

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HOUS­TON Three days af­ter United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump or­dered an end to the sep­a­ra­tion of fam­i­lies at the border, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties are cast­ing about for jail space to de­tain them to­gether, leav­ing hun­dreds of par­ents in the dark on when they will be re­united with their chil­dren.

Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) posted a no­tice yes­ter­day say­ing it was look­ing into cre­at­ing 15,000 beds for use in de­tain­ing im­mi­grant fam­i­lies. A day ear­lier, the Pen­tagon agreed to pro­vide space for as many as 20,000 mi­grants on US mil­i­tary bases.

Be­yond that, how­ever, there is noth­ing but frus­tra­tion and worry for many of the par­ents sep­a­rated from their chil­dren and placed in de­ten­tion cen­tres for il­le­gally en­ter­ing the coun­try over the past sev­eral weeks.

Some par­ents are strug­gling to get in touch with young­sters be­ing held in many cases hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away, in places like New York and the Chicago area. Some say they don’t even know where their chil­dren are.

Trump him­self took a hard line on the cri­sis, ac­cus­ing the Democrats of telling ‘‘phony sto­ries of sad­ness and grief’’. He met with par­ents who had chil­dren killed by il­le­gal im­mi­grants to make the point that they were the real vic­tims of weak bor­ders.

‘‘We can­not al­low our coun­try to be over­run by il­le­gal im­mi­grants,’’ the pres­i­dent tweeted.

More than 2300 chil­dren were taken from their fam­i­lies at the border in re­cent weeks. A se­nior Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said that about 500 of them had been re­united since May.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to stop sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies, an­nounced on Thurs­day af­ter a fierce in­ter­na­tional out­cry, has led to con­fu­sion and un­cer­tainty along the border with Mex­ico.

Fed­eral agen­cies were work­ing to set up a cen­tralised re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion process for all re­main­ing chil­dren at a de­ten­tion cen­tre in Texas, said the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

An ICE of­fi­cial said it was un­clear how fam­i­lies would be re­united. ‘‘It’s a big ques­tion. There have not been a lot of an­swers,’’ Henry Lucero, a direc­tor of field op­er­a­tions, con­fessed at a fo­rum in Wes­laco, Texas.

In the mean­time, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties ap­pear to be eas­ing up on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ‘‘zero tol­er­ance’’ pol­icy of pros­e­cut­ing all adults caught il­le­gally en­ter­ing the US – though the Jus­tice Depart­ment flatly de­nied there has been any change.

The fed­eral pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice for the re­gion that cov­ers El Paso to San An­to­nio said pros­e­cu­tors would no longer charge par­ents with il­le­gally en­ter­ing the US if they had chil­dren with them.

Out­side the fed­eral court­house in McAllen, im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney Efren Oli­vares said 67 peo­ple were charged yes­ter­day with il­le­gal en­try, but none were par­ents with chil­dren. It was the first time since May 24 that this had hap­pened in McAllen. ‘‘It ap­pears that this is a con­se­quence of a change in pol­icy by the gov­ern­ment,’’ he said.

In Ari­zona, the fed­eral pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice in Tuc­son quickly put to­gether a le­gal ed­u­ca­tion class for at­tor­neys and ad­vo­cates on how to han­dle cases of sep­a­rated fam­i­lies.

Amid the chaos over the ze­ro­tol­er­ance pol­icy, many im­mi­grants are con­tin­u­ing to seek asy­lum at the border, and they are typ­i­cally al­lowed to stay with their chil­dren.

ICE has only three fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide – two in Texas, and one in Penn­syl­va­nia – that can be used to de­tain im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, and they have a com­bined 3300 beds.

Find­ing space is not the only hur­dle: un­der a 1997 court set­tle­ment that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to over­turn, chil­dren can be held with their par­ents in de­ten­tion cen­tres for no more than 20 days.

Ze­nen Jaimes Perez of the Texas Civil Rights Project said im­mi­grant fam­i­lies were still await­ing de­tails from the ad­min­is­tra­tion on how par­ents and chil­dren were to be re­united. ‘‘It could take a cou­ple of months, a cou­ple of days . . . but we don’t have time lines.’’

The group has been in­ter­view­ing mi­grants each morn­ing at the McAllen court­house and en­ter­ing in­for­ma­tion into a data­base to help keep track of par­ents and chil­dren held in dif­fer­ent fa­cil­i­ties, some­times scat­tered around the coun­try. GETTY IMAGES

Oli­vares said it was dif­fi­cult for gov­ern­ment agen­cies to re­unite im­mi­grant fam­i­lies once they were sep­a­rated be­cause the sys­tems that pro­cessed adults and young­sters of­ten didn’t com­mu­ni­cate with each other.

Adults ac­cused of im­mi­gra­tion of­fences are un­der the author­ity of the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment, while chil­dren taken from their par­ents are over­seen by Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

On Capi­tol Hill, in yet another abrupt re­ver­sal by the pres­i­dent, Trump yes­ter­day told fel­low Repub­li­cans in Congress to ‘‘stop wast­ing their time’’ on im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion un­til af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tions.

GOP lead­ers said they would press on any­way, but his com­ments fur­ther dam­aged their at­tempt to win over wa­ver­ing law­mak­ers for a mea­sure al­ready fac­ing likely de­feat The mea­sure would grant young ‘‘Dreamer’’ im­mi­grants who ar­rived in the US il­le­gally as chil­dren a chance for cit­i­zen­ship – a move many Repub­li­cans worry could en­rage con­ser­va­tive vot­ers, who would view it as amnesty. AP

A Mex­i­can mi­grant mother and her daugh­ters walk to the port of en­try into the United States in Ti­juana for an asy­lum hear­ing yes­ter­day. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­tro­ver­sial zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy saw an in­crease in the num­ber of mi­grant chil­dren...

PHOTO: AP

A pro­tester holds a sign out­side the Port of En­try fa­cil­ity in Fabens, Texas, where tent shel­ters are be­ing used to house sep­a­rated mi­grant fam­ily mem­bers.

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