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...
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.