Donald Trump

With No Reunification System in Place, Migrant Families Struggle to Navigate Red Tape

"What we need to hear is what the administration says this process is going to look like, because we don't know," James Perez said

Two days after President Donald Trump ordered an end to the separation of families at the border, federal authorities Friday were still working on a plan to reunite an estimated 1,800 children with their parents and keep immigrant households together.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement posted a notice saying it is looking into creating 15,000 beds for use in detaining immigrant families. A day earlier, the Pentagon said it was drawing up plans to house as many as 20,000 migrants on U.S. military bases.

Beyond that, however, there were few signs of any relief for parents separated from their children and placed in detention centers for illegally entering the country over the past several weeks.

Immigration attorney Efren Olivares said it is difficult for government agencies to reunite immigrant families once they are separated because the systems that process adults and those that handle youngsters often don't communicate with each other.

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

Some locked-up parents report struggling to get in touch with children being held in many cases hundreds of miles away, in places like New York, Michigan and Chicago. Some said they don't even know where their children were.

The U.S. government has done little to help with the reunification, according to attorneys and foreign diplomats. Brazil's Deputy Consul-General Felipe Santarosa told local media that the Department of Homeland Security only notified his office of the number of Brazilian nationals held and sent a list of facilities holding them. He said the vague document didn't name any of the detainees or specify who was held where.

Santarosa said Brazilian diplomats are now tasked with the difficult job of identifying these children and parents by calling each facility, asking if there are any Brazilians being held there and then fighting for access to information.

Local and state officials have also faced roadblocks in identifying children held in facilities in their own states. In the absence of government assistance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded federally-contracted facilities in the state provide information on the migrant children in their care. It's not clear whether the state's request is enforceable, given that the agencies are bound by federal contract, and given that immigration is a federal issue.

In the mean time, immigrant families are still awaiting details from the Trump administration on how parents and children are to be reunited.

"It could take a couple of months, a couple of days ... but we don't have timelines," said Zenen Jaimes Perez of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "What we need to hear is what the administration says this process is going to look like, because we don't know."

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

Federal agencies are working to set up a centralized reunification process for all remaining children at a detention center on the Texas side of the border, said the senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

An ICE official said it is unclear how families will be reunified.

"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.

Lucero said family reunification isn't new to the agency but the numbers are larger now. Parents are first asked if they wish to reunite and often elect to leave their children in the U.S. with caretakers.

More than 2,300 children were taken from their families at the border in recent weeks. A senior Trump administration official said that about 500 of them have been reunited since May.

Trump's decision to stop separating families, announced Wednesday after a fierce international outcry, has led to confusion and uncertainty along the border.

While federal authorities appear to be easing up on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting all adults caught illegally entering the U.S., the Justice Department flatly denies there has been any change.

The federal public defender's office for the region that covers El Paso to San Antonio said in an email made public Thursday that federal prosecutors will no longer charge parents with illegally entering the U.S. if they have children with them.

Outside the federal courthouse in McAllen, Olivares said 67 people were charged Friday morning with illegal entry, but none were parents with children.

He said it was the first time since May 24 that no parents separated from their children had been charged in McAllen.

ICE has only three facilities nationwide — two main ones in Texas — that can be used to detain immigrant families, and they have a combined 3,300 beds.

The facility in Dilley, Texas, opened in 2015 on a remote site that was once an encampment for oil workers. It contains collections of cottages built around playgrounds and common areas, but also has high security.

Under a 1997 court settlement that the Trump administration is trying to overturn, children can be held with their parents in detention centers for no more than 20 days.

Meanwhile, 7-year-old boy and his mother, separated a month ago, were reunited Friday after she sued in federal court and the Justice Department agreed to release the child.

They were reunited around 2:30 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland, hours after the government relented.

The mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, had filed for political asylum after crossing the border with her son, Darwin, following a trek from Guatemala. She said that she cried when the two were reunited and that she is never going to be away from him again.

But a 31-year-old Brazilian man held in Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, said he didn't know when he would see his 9-year-old son again.

The father told the AP in a phone interview that he spoke to his son once by phone since they were separated 26 days earlier. The man, who is seeking asylum, spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, a gang is looking for him in Brazil for failure to pay an $8,000 debt.

The man said he worries about his son, who speaks only Portuguese.

"He cried. He was so sad," the father said. "I had promised him it would only be three to five days."

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

Stubborn differences between conservative and more moderate Republicans have stalled legislation on Capitol Hill.

Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Colleen Long, Peter Prengaman, Robert Burns, Nomaan Merchant and Amy Taxin, contributed to this report.

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