Not long after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to stop separating children from parents illegally crossing the border, cautious relief has turned into widespread confusion.
Distraught parents are searching for their children separated from them weeks ago, some as young as 9 months old. Some parents are trying to track them down from immigration detention, where resources and phone calls are limited.
Many of the at least 2,300 children separated from their migrant parents since May are in far-flung shelters and foster homes nationwide — hundreds of miles away from the southern border.
The process of reuniting parents and children is so chaotic, even immigrant rights organizations and lawyers are frantically working through a maze of unknowns.
‘It takes time. It’s slow’
When children are separated at the border, they are designated as “unaccompanied alien children” and sent to facilities in states such as Michigan, New York and South Carolina. In the past, more than 100 shelters in 17 states have housed unaccompanied children.
In some cases, federal officials secretly send the children to city facilities without notifying the local government, as was the case in New York City, making finding them even more complicated.
US officials are not doing much to help reunite families, according to lawyers and immigrants rights group. Trump’s executive order does not address the uniting of families already separated — and existing policies place the onus on parents to find their own children.
“It seems like just a very painful bureaucratic process taking place,” said attorney Efrén Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is helping reunite the families.
“It takes time. It’s slow. It’s not transparent. Even for the attorneys representing these parents,” Olivares said, adding that of the 400 separated children his organization has tried to track down, only one has been reunited with a relative in the United States.
Michael Avenatti, the attorney widely known for his client Stormy Daniels’ case against Trump, is representing some of the immigrant parents. With every passing day, he said, the window to find the separated children is rapidly closing.
“When they take your bag at the airport, they give you a bag tag so you can track it,” he tweeted. ” When they take your dry cleaning, they give you a claim check. But when the US govt strips you of your son or daughter, they give you nothing. They then proceed to lose them.”
Melissa Lopez helps reunite separated immigrant children with their parents, and she’s been busy.
Lawyers have sent her organization several requests from distraught parents searching for their children after crossing the border through El Paso.
“They will send us a list and say, ‘please check,’ ” said Lopez, who serves as the executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas.
“It’s been kind of crazy the level that it’s been happening. Many of the attorneys, we send them information on one child and they’re sending us two or three more requests right after that.”
So far, they have reconnected between 20 to 30 families over the phone. As facilities reach capacity, children are increasingly being sent to other parts of the country, away from where their parents are detained, Lopez said. There’s no easy system to match family members, she said, and phone calls are a crucial, immediate way to reconnect.
“The government provides absolutely no tools to these families to try and reunite them. They separate them and make no sort of effort or feel any sort of responsibility about making sure either party knows where the other is,” Lopez said. “It definitely is challenging.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides parents with a hotline to call for details on a separated child, and says it will work across agencies to schedule regular phone communication.
“They (parents) have to hope that somebody reaches out to follow up. It’s a really inhumane system,” Lopez said.
Cindy Madrid is still in detention. She says she’s called the hotline provided, but has not reconnected with her 6-year-old daughter, Alisson.
“I have not once talked to her. I’ve been talking to the social worker, but she only took my information because she said my daughter was in an activity,” she said.
She called back in the evening as the social worker asked her to, but her call went unanswered.
“To date, they haven’t answered me. Not one time,” she said. “Please help me reunite with my daughter soon. I’m desperate. I want to see her. I love her and … miss her so much. I hope to see her very soon, God willing.”
Madrid has heard her daughter’s voice in an anguished voice recording released by investigative news nonprofit ProPublica. In it, Alisson can be heard begging for someone to call her aunt as she recites the phone number she memorized during the 17-day journey from their native El Salvador to the US border.
“Mommy says I’ll go with my aunt and that she’ll come to pick me up as quickly as possible,” Alisson said.
In the audio recording, other separated children sob desperately.
“Imagine, all these days without knowing anything about my daughter, without talking to her, without seeing her. Without any information about anything,” Madrid says. “Every moment I ask myself, how is she? Has she eaten? Are they taking care of her? Do they shower her?”
CNN dialed the number she was given to find information about her daughter, but no one answered.
“I’m not in at the moment. Please leave a message with your name, number and the name of the child that you are calling for. Thanks,” a voice recording said.
Hope amid chaos
In Texas, one small shelter has found success reuniting young children with family members.
Three children placed at Catholic Charities Fort Worth were reunited with their relatives this week after getting separated at the border, said Heather Reynolds, the group’s executive director.
The reunions provided a much-needed ray of optimism in an otherwise grim situation.
Catholic Charities is currently housing about a dozen children separated from their family members in the weeks after the administration’s zero-tolerance policy took effect, Reynolds said. The policy to refer all adults for charges was publicly announced May 7, leading to thousands of child separations.
“They’re hurting, they’re worried, they’re worried about mom and dad,” she said. “We have seen an increase in crying, nightmares, things like that.”
The children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are between ages 5 and 12. They go to a school on-site for half their day and focus on English and geography lessons.
“We spend a lot of time on geography, on the journey that they’ve been on and where they will be going to,” Reynolds said.
So far, the administration has not provided details on how it plans to unite the children separated from their families.
“It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter,” said Brian Marriott, a families’ division spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Frustrated with the family separations, a California couple started a Facebook fundraising campaign to reunite children separated from their parents. They’ve raised $17 million so far, and plan to continue despite Trump’s order, which ends the separation of families by detaining parents and children together.