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What’s Happening At The Border? Here’s What We Know About Immigrant Children And Family Separations

More than 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the border. Here’s the latest on what’s happening at the border, in Washington and among Texas politicians.

Immigrant families seeking asylum in the United State wait on the Mexican side of the international bridge connecting Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico.

The attention of the nation has turned to Texas and its border with Mexico after the Trump administration enacted a policy that has resulted in undocumented children being separated from their parents. Here’s what we know:

What’s happening at the border?

In April, the federal government announced an immigration policy of “zero tolerance,” saying all adults who cross the border illegally between official ports of entry would be criminally prosecuted. Since children can’t be sent to jail, kids who were detained with their parents were being separated from them. While their parents went through the legal system, children were handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

In the last two months, at least 2,500 children were separated, The Washington Post has reported. The Trump administration tested the “zero tolerance” policy starting in October. The New York Times reported that, between October and April, more than 700 children were separated from adults claiming to be their parents. The reporting was based on data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

As stories of children being separated from their parents have spread, outrage swelled across the political spectrum. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order saying the separations should stop. He directed that, “to the extent permitted by law,” immigrant families should be held together in immigration detention facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security.

Soon after, the U.S. Border Patrol said it stopped referring migrants with children to courthouses for prosecution, effectively exempting families from the zero tolerance policy, according to the Washington Post. One possible reason: Under a legal settlement, children cannot be detained for more than 20 days, even if they are with their parents. But federal officials say it’s just a pause. The “zero tolerance” policy remains in play, they say. 

For now, the Trump order has brought an end to the practice of separating families and prosecuting migrant adults with children. But the president’s executive order asks the Department of Homeland Security to look for new ways to house immigrant families together and bypass the 2o-day detention limit.

What will happen to the kids already separated from their parents?

On June 26, a federal judge ordered immigration officials to reunite families within 30 days, according to the Washington Post. Children under 5 must be reunited with parents within 14 days and parents must be able to call their children within 10 days.

ICE has released some plans that same day to reunite families so they “can be returned to their home countries together.” However, the government hasn’t outlined a plan to reunify parents and children who are seeking asylum and will stay in the country while their claims are processed.

Some detained migrants were told they would be reunited with their children if they signed voluntary removal orders from the U.S. A Honduran man who spoke to the Texas Tribune on June 23 said he said a voluntary deportation agreement out of “desperation” to see his 6-year-old daughter.

Southwest Key Programs, the Texas-based nonprofit that houses almost half of the undocumented children in federal custody, said it is keeping track of the location of parents. Children are allowed to be in contact with their parents, according to Alexia Rodriguez, the vice president of immigrant children’s services for Southwest Key.

While children wait to be reunited with their parents, some immigrant toddlers are being ordered into court for deportation proceedings, according to Kaiser Health News. Requiring accompanied minors to go to court alone is not new, but the family separation policy means more young children are being affected.

In what kind of conditions are the kids living?

The shelters that house immigrant children have been accused of serious lapses in care, an investigation by Reveal and The Texas Tribune has found. In almost all cases, the federal government has continued to place children with the companies after serious allegations were raised.

Allegations included failure to seek medical attention for children and “inappropriate contact between children and staff.”

Federal authorities have let reporters and lawmakers into some facilities. Last week, federal authorities let a group of reporters tour a Brownsville center that used to be a Walmart.

The number of kids staying at the shelter, which is called Casa Padre, doubled between April and May of this year, according to The Washington Post. The shelter houses about 1,500 boys, who attend school for six hours a day and spend two hours outside. The boys are allowed to make two phone calls a week. Officials who run the shelter say the average stay there is 49 days.

Officials also let reporters tour a processing center in McAllen. U.S. Customs and Border Protection released video from the Central Processing Center. 

Lawmakers toured the temporary shelter in Tornillo, a border city about 40 miles from El Paso, last week. After the tour, state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said there are doctors and caseworkers in the facility.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, also toured the facility, and told Texas Monthly the temporary facility seems to be safe and well run.

“They get three meals a day and snacks, it’s the same food that the staff eats,” Hurd told Texas Monthly. “There are fifty caseworkers that are working to get them placed with other family members.”

What happens to families that cross the border now?

Trump’s executive order made clear that he didn’t want to end the “zero tolerance” policy. But right now there is a lot of uncertainty about how those new cases will be handled. If the government wants to continue to detain families that crossed the border illegally, it will face logistical and legal hurdles. Right now, it isn’t referring those families for criminal prosecution.

Migrant families can’t legally be detained for longer than 20 days. The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to amend the 2015 ruling that set the 20-day limit.

If the Justice Department succeeds, the government will also have to find a place to house the detained families. Right now, there are three Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities — two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania — that can house families. Their combined capacity is only about 3,000.

Why did the Trump administration do this?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in April.

“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” he said the following month. “It’s that simple. … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

The policy was meant to deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border illegally. Sessions said President Trump won the 2016 election in part thanks to his tough stance on immigration.

“If you want to change our laws, then pass a bill in Congress,” he said. “Persuade your fellow citizens to your point of view.”

Trump, meanwhile, blamed Democrats.

In a tweet early on in the crisis, he said, “Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country. Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”

What are lawmakers doing to address this?

Lawmakers have scrambled to come up with some kind of solution. But it wasn’t been easy.

The U.S. House rejected two immigration bills addressing border security and the status of “Dreamers.” Neither bill had Democratic support.  

Meanwhile, both U.S. senators from Texas were working on legislation — maybe together. On June 19, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, filed an emergency bill. A press release sent from his office says the legislation would double the number of federal immigration judges from roughly 375 to 750 and expedite review of asylum cases. In the meantime, temporary shelters would be authorized in order to house families together.

The next day, Senate Republicans — including both U.S. senators from Texas — introduced the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act, which would hold families together in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security as they await a court hearing.

Lawmakers from both parties have said that legislative action is still needed, despite Trump’s order ending separations.   

How are Texas lawmakers reacting?

Many top statewide elected officials initially blamed Democrats for failing to work with Republicans on immigration reform. But as outrage swelled, they began to urge both parties to act.

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a letter to Texans in Congress, asking them to take action and end family separation.

“This disgraceful condition must end; and it can only end with action by Congress to reform the broken immigration system,” he wrote.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, backed Trump’s actions.

“The separation of families should never be a desired outcome and my heart goes out to these children being used as ‘pawns’ in a political debate… The Trump administration is following the law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been outraged. On Father’s Day, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso who is running for U.S. Senate, and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, who is running for Congress, led a protest at the Tornillo tent city. Six Democratic members of the Texas Legislature sent a letter to two federal agencies calling the tent cities “abhorrent and possibly illegal.”

A growing number of Republicans are speaking out against the policy.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has opposed the policy from the start. He wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to end the “zero tolerance” policy.

Laura Bush, the former first lady of the U.S. and of Texas, called the “zero tolerance” policy “cruel” in an op-ed published in The Washington Post.

We asked every member of the Texas congressional delegation and other statewide officials if they support the “zero tolerance” policy. See how each one answered here.

How did the Obama administration handle similar cases?

The Obama administration drew criticism from immigration advocates for its 2015 policy of detaining mothers and children, but it released families from detention together.

During a surge of undocumented immigration from Central America in 2014, a federal judge ruled that families were being held in “deplorable” conditions in Texas detention centers after crossing the border, according to previous Texas Tribune reporting. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gave the Obama administration about two months to release women and children in centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.

Homeland Security officials initially said they were detaining families to deter immigrants from illegally crossing the border, according to The New York Times. In February 2015, a federal court ruled that the children had to be released. In 2016, a judge ruled that a 20-day detention limit for children applied to families, too. Federal authorities then released many of those families and told them to return for their court dates.

As this story develops and we have more information, we’ll continue to answer your questions. To submit questions about what’s happening at the border, email texplainer@texastribune.org. Follow The Texas Tribune on Twitter or our list of journalists covering the policy for updates.

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