El Paso (United States) (AFP) – President Donald Trump may have halted the widely assailed practice of taking children away from parents who cross the border with Mexico illegally, but that’s of little comfort to those who already lost their kids.
Reunifying those heartbroken families will be a herculean task and likely not happen any time soon, immigration lawyers working with migrants say.
Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services said after Trump’s rare cave-in amid global outrage over a practice dismissed as abominably cruel that it is “awaiting further guidance” on bringing families back together.
“When I’m talking to the parents, they are staring past me because they just can’t understand, they can’t comprehend, they can’t accept, they can’t believe, that they don’t know where their children are and that the US government took them,” said Jodi Goodwin, a Texas lawyer who represents asylum seekers.
“It is incredibly, incredibly heart-wrenching and horrendously roughshod on due process,” said Goodwin, who has worked as a volunteer for the Migrant Center for Human Rights since 1995.
More than 2,300 children were stripped from their parents and adult relatives since May 5, and placed in tent camps and other facilities, with no way to contact their relatives.
This was part of what the Trump administration called a “zero tolerance” policy toward people crossing the border illegally, with adults systematically detained for prosecution even if they came over seeking asylum.
As photos and audio of wailing children at shelter facilities and people held in cages were met with horror around the world, and criticism reached a fever pitch even among his own Republican Party, Trump executed a rare climb down on Wednesday after days of doggedly defending the policy and blaming the Democrats for it. He signed an order halting the family separations.
But the humanitarian crisis is far from over, Goodwin said, describing the situation along the border as an utter mess, with little fluid communication between the agency which has custody over the children and border control authorities such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I have my doubts that ICE would be able to track down the kids and reunify them with their mothers and fathers within a day,” said Goodwin, who is handling the cases of six asylum seekers whose children were taken away from them weeks ago and have no idea where they are.
“Everyone is just scrambling and trying to put out one fire after another, just to keep things sort of operating,” Goodwin said.
– Problem not solved –
Lawyers like her say the media attention of recent weeks is welcome, but that they have been warning about this situation for years.
They say families arriving at the border have been broken up over the past decade but it is only in the past six weeks under the new Trump policy that the practice reached such an exorbitant level.
So they take Trump’s decision with a grain of salt, saying it does not halt the detention of families for illegally crossing the border. It just keeps them together in detention.
Trump’s executive order suggests the government intends to hold the families indefinitely by challenging a 1997 court ruling, known as the Flores Settlement, that places a 20-day limit on how long children, alone or with their parents, can be detained.
“Separating children from their parents is horrendous and outrageous, but detaining them is still horrendous and outrageous, even when they’re detained with their parents,” said Andrea Guttin, legal director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.
Now, families will be held longer, said Guttin.
And the order will not halt separation of grandparents who come with children, of siblings who come alone, of aunts and uncles who come with children or other perhaps adopted parents or stepparents that can’t prove the minors traveling with them are their children, Guttin said.
“Those historically have been separated and will likely continue to be separated,” said Guttin.
Barbara Hines, former law professor at the University of Texas, put it this way: “I do not think that Trump’s EO is a solution to a crisis that he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions created.”
One key problem is that border control agents violate US and international law by treating asylum seekers as criminals, arresting them and separating them from their kids, the lawyers say.
“And the zero tolerance policy is not going to end,” said Hines. “They’re still going to be prosecuting asylum seekers for a misdemeanor of illegal entry when they can actually under law ask for asylum.”