President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has ripped thousands of children – some as young as 3 months old – from their migrant parents. Trump claims his new executive order will suspend child/parent separations, in favor of family detention at federal internment camps. But the administration has given contradictory accounts of what will happen to the children who have already undergone separation.
On Wednesday, administration officials told reporters no special effort would be made to return these children to their parents. On Thursday, Trump said he was directing government agencies to “work” to “reunite these previously separated groups.” Yet the president, who lies constantly, undercut that assurance later in the same meeting, insisting his executive order was “limited,” and adding: “No matter how you cut it, it leads to separation ultimately.”
John Sandweg, who served as acting ICE Director under President Obama, tells Rolling Stone, “There’s a very high risk of permanent separation” for the families that were ripped apart. Migrant parents could easily lose legal custody, he says, in a Kafka-esque tangle of American bureaucracies. (Trump on Friday mocked the migrants’ “phony stories of sadness and grief.”)
To understand the plight of the families affected by Trump’s initiative – which Amnesty International has condemned as “nothing short of torture” – it’s critical to understand that once family units are broken apart, parents and children are in the hands of two separate bureaucracies. Here’s how the process typically goes: Parents are detained by ICE within the Department of Homeland Security; the children are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, and are now considered unaccompanied minors. Some of the children have extended family in America who can provide a home for them. For the rest, HHS seeks foster care placements – anywhere in the U.S. that can accommodate them. “They’re flying these kids all over the country,” says Sandweg.
The government is not equipped to keep track of the broken family units as they proceed separately through the adjudication and/or deportation process. “It’s really hard, logistically, to do this – to track movements of everybody, to match IDs,” Sandweg says. “And if you’ve got two separate agencies doing it, it’s really, really hard – even if you’ve planned it. I’m seeing no signs that any of this was well planned.” For parents who’ve already been deported, Sandweg adds, “There is no agency that’s now tracking the parent in Honduras.” In other words, even if the Trump administration wanted to fly the child back home, Sandweg says, there’s no guarantee the government knows where to send them.
Migrant parents held in detention are on a fast track for deportation – receiving a trial on their immigration status within weeks of crossing the border. Some desperate parents, Sandweg says, may have already been pressured into abandoning asylum claims and voluntarily accepting removal from the United States, in the mistaken belief that this would speed reunification with an infant child. But this is a false hope.
“There’s no mechanism for ICE to track the location of the baby, and ICE isn’t going to wait for HHS to find that kid and bring that kid down to McAllen, Texas, and pair them with the parent, and then fly the two of them back to Guatemala or Honduras – that’s not how it works,” Sandweg says. “ICE gets the final order of removal, and ICE is going to execute that removal order as quickly as possible. You need to free up that [detention] bed for somebody else – that’s what it’s all about.”
The nightmare continues once parents return to their home countries without their children. Unlike adults, unaccompanied migrant children are a low priority for deportation. It can take years for a child’s asylum case to wend its way before an immigration judge. If the child is now in the foster care system, he or she is a ward of whatever state HHS sent him or her to. And the state court system has to designate a legal guardian to make ongoing decisions about the welfare of that child.
Sandweg presents a heartbreaking scenario: “The parent is back to Honduras. They want their child back, but there’s no effective means of finding out where the child is,” he says. In state court hearings, the deported parents are then punished for being out of country. “The parent has no way – legally or financially – to return to the United States to appear in state court proceedings where the guardianship of their child is being decided,” Sandweg says. Because the feds deported the parent, courts usually deem the child to have been abandoned, legally speaking. “Parental rights are then severed,” often permanently, says Sandweg. “Now, the parent has no legal authority to mandate return of their child.”
In this way, the families that the Trump administration ripped apart over a misdemeanor offense could become permanently ruptured. Some of the children, Sandweg says, could eventually be put up for adoption. In the darkest of ironies, forcibly orphaned migrants – whom the president is desperate to deport – could in fact qualify for permanent residency, because the U.S. has a “special immigrant juvenile” classification designed for abandoned children. As Sandweg puts it, “Trump could be creating hundreds of future green card holders.”