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As the White House faces court orders to reunite families separated at the border, immigrant children as young as 3 are being ordered into court for their own deportation proceedings, according to attorneys in Texas, California and Washington, D.C.
Requiring unaccompanied minors to go through deportation alone is not a new practice. But in the wake of the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy, more young children — including toddlers — are being affected than in the past.
The 2,000-plus children will likely need to deal with court proceedings even as they grapple with the ongoing trauma of being taken from their parents.
“We were representing a 3-year-old in court recently who had been separated from the parents. And the child — in the middle of the hearing — started climbing up on the table,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with these kids.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which oversees the deportations of unauthorized immigrants, did not respond to a request for comment.
Toczylowski said parents typically have been tried along with young children and have explained the often-violent circumstances that led them to seek asylum in the U.S.
The children being detained under the new “zero tolerance” policy, though, are facing immigration proceedings without mom or dad by their side.
“The parent might be the only one who knows why they fled from the home country, and the child is in a disadvantageous position to defend themselves,” Toczylowski said.
Meanwhile, the broader legal situation is in flux. A federal judge Tuesday night commanded the White House to reunify families within 14 days if the child is under 5 and 30 days if the child is older. The Justice Department has not indicated whether it will appeal. Attorneys who are involved in the cases said it’s unclear how the judge’s order will work in practice, and when and how it could take effect.
“We don’t know how the judge’s order is going to play out with reunification of children. What if parents have already been deported?” said Cynthia Milian, a Texas-based attorney at the Powers Law Group.
In the interim, she added, the implications for kids remain an urgent concern.
Given the trauma the children faced in their home country that spurred their families to flee and the pain of being separated from a parent, the expectation that children can mount a legal defense is “unconscionable,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, director of the division of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.
“It’s certainly grossly inappropriate,” said Dreyer, who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics advocacy committee. “I’m ashamed that we’re doing this.”
Leaders at three legal services organizations and a private firm confirmed that the children are being served with notices to appear in court. They are not entitled to an attorney but rather are given a list of legal services organizations that might help them.
Steve Lee, a UCLA child psychology professor, said expecting the children to advocate for themselves in court is an “incredibly misaligned expectation.”
“That couldn’t be any less developmentally appropriate,” he said, adding that some children may not be mature enough to verbalize a response.
More than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents at the border have been dispatched to the far corners of the nation to care facilities and foster homes.
Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services emphasized Tuesday that the agency is working to unify children with either a parent or a sponsor. But it did not provide a timeline for how long that would take.
“We are working across agencies for reunification of each child with [a] parent or family as soon as that is practical,” Jonathan White, HHS’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a media call.
HHS representatives said children in facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement receive adequate care, including medical and mental health services, and at least two phone calls per week with family.
Yet children who are just arriving at care facilities are still not connected with their families, said Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense. She said the children arrive at care facilities without a parent’s tracking number, and parents don’t tend to have their kids’ numbers.
After kids arrive in care facilities, HHS officials work on finding a “sponsor” to care for the child, such as a parent, guardian, family member or family friend. Historically, unaccompanied minors — who tended to be teens — found a sponsor in about a month and a half.
However, Rachel Prandini, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said finding a sponsor is more difficult now given recent fears that stepping forward to accept a child could trigger a sponsor’s deportation.
In April, HHS entered into an agreement with law enforcement officials that requires sponsors and adult family members to submit fingerprints and be subject to a thorough immigration and criminal background check.
HHS officials said the process is meant to protect the child.
Immigration lawyers from around the country have been flying into Texas to help represent children and families, said George Tzamaras, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
It’s impossible to know how many children have begun deportation proceedings, Tzamaras said. “There have been reports of kids younger than 3 years old and others as old as 17.”
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a jurist in Los Angeles, said that unaccompanied minor cases are heard on a special docket there. She said the judges who take the cases were trained during the last administration on children’s developmental stages, impulse control and making sure the proceedings are understandable to children.
She said in a statement that the court’s work is vital: “This is not traffic court. A mistake on an asylum case can result in jail, torture or a death sentence,” Tabaddor said. “We are a nation of laws. We value fairness, justice and transparency.”
She said children seeking asylum tend to make their case in a non-adversarial office setting with a hearing officer.
But that isn’t always the case, Prandini said. Lawyers might choose a strategy that requires more time in the courtroom.
“It’s difficult for adults at times. They go to court and they get nervous before a judge,” Milian said. “Now can you imagine a child having to go before a judge and just explain to them why they’re having to flee their country?”
Toczylowski said her organization is trying to help reunify the families so the children can be tried alongside the parents.
“The kids don’t understand the intricacies that are involved with deportation and immigration court,” she said. “They do understand that they have been separated from their parents, and the primary goal is to get back with people they love.”
Authors: CHRISTINA JEWETT AND SHEFALI LUTHRA, KAISER HEALTH NEWS
The Texas Tribune June 26, 2018NewsComments Off on Feds Remain Mum on Whether There is Plan to Reunify Parents, Children Seeking Asylum
HARLINGEN — While federal officials say they have a process in place for reunifying the thousands of undocumented immigrant parents and their children whose separations set off a humanitarian crisis along the Texas-Mexico border, it is unclear how or if they plan to reunite families seeking asylum.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement released Tuesday provided some details about plans for reuniting families so they “can be returned to their home countries together.” Neither that statement — nor an earlier one released Saturday — explicitly addressed the reunification process for children whose parents fled violence in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok did not respond to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday when asked if such a plan is in place for asylum seekers. Rusnok also declined to answer how many people currently separated from their children are seeking asylum, pointing a reporter insteadto statements about reunifying deportees.
“We’re concerned about that, so hopefully the government will provide specific answers to those questions,” said Natalia Cornelio, a director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, an advocacy group that has interviewed hundreds of undocumented immigrants separated from their children during President Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Those separations set off a bipartisan backlash that eventually prompted Trump to repeal the policy last week through an executive order. The move did little to quell confusion and tension along the border. And it has been days since federal officials updated the number of reunifications that have happened.
It is not illegal to come to a United States port of entryand ask for asylum. Once they make that request, asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the U.S. while their requests weave through a process that can take anywhere from days to years.
But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled earlier this month that people fleeing gang or domestic violence alone no longer qualify for asylum. And U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents recently began waiting on international bridges on the Texas-Mexico border and deterring would-be asylum seekers from crossing the border by telling them there is no room for them to be processed on the U.S. side.
“When our ports of entry reach capacity, when their ability to manage all of their missions — counter-narcotics, national security, facilitation of lawful trade — is challenged by the time and the space to process people that are arriving without documents, from time to time we have to manage the queues and address that processing based on that capacity,” said Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
It’s unclear how many people apprehended during the “zero tolerance” policy — which has led to more than 2,500 children being separated from parents or guardians — have crossed into the country illegally because they were blocked at a port of entry.
ICE designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos as the central location for reuniting and detaining families, but said in a statement Tuesday that no children would be housed there because it was only for those “going through the removal process.”
A group of mothers detained at the Port Isabel facility told lawmakers they had yet to receive court dates for immigration hearings — and in the meantime, they remain in a state of limbo, unsure of where their children being held are and unable to find out.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, said there is a “clear disconnect” between official messages promising family reunification coming out of Washington and the confusion she and other lawmakers witnessed at Port Isabel.
Meanwhile, parents who have been released from federal custody say they still don’t know how or when they will be reunited with their children. The Texas Tribune reported this week that some asylum seekers separated from their children were told they would be reunited only if they agreed to be voluntarily deported.
Austin immigration attorney Kim Lincoln-Goldfinch, who is representing a woman who fled violence in Guatemala with her 5-year-old child, said the woman was turned away at a border crossing, entered the country illegally without getting caught and immediately sought out a federal agent so she could ask for asylum.
“Although she crossed the river, she wasn’t looking to abscond,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Instead of being detained so her request could be processed, the client was arrested and separated from her child, Lincoln-Goldfinch said. Her client remains in a detention facility in Hutto, northeast of Austin, while her child has been released to a relative.
“That is a new horror on a new level that I have never experienced before as an immigration attorney,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Federal agents earlier this week stood on a bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to a border station in Brownsville and refused to let asylum seekers through. A group of men from Cuba sat on the bridge, where they had been waiting days to make asylum claims.
A few feet away, Walter and Helen Vindel had just arrived with their four children. They left their home country of Honduras in January and slowly made their way through Mexico, stopping in small villages for days at a time to work odd jobs and save enough money for another leg of the trip.
The Vindels left home after they could no longer pay gang members, who had already killed some of their relatives, the “taxes” the violent groups charge for allegedly protecting families.
Vindel cried as she said the family just wants Americans to show compassion and understand they are not like the criminals they are fleeing.
“All we want is what’s best for our children,” she said. “We want them to have a future.”
When told of the chaotic immigration situation just a few yards away in America, they said they would remain on the bridge until border protection agents let them through. They said they would not cross illegally.
“In my mind, this is my only chance,” Walter Vindel.
Julian Aguilar and Claire Parker contributed to this report.
The Texas Tribune June 14, 2018NewsComments Off on Trump Administration Makes Site Selection for Tent City Near El Paso to House Immigrant Children Separated From Parents
The Trump administration has selected Tornillo Land Point of Entry, a crossing point along the Texas-Mexico border near El Paso, as the site of its first temporary shelter for immigrant children separated from their parents under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson confirmed Thursday.
The department chose the site in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, according to the spokesperson. The federal government will erect tents at the site to house immigrant children whose parents are facing prosecution for crossing the border illegally. Under the new “zero tolerance” policy, which U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April, thousands of children have been separated from their parents at the border and have quickly filled Texas shelters.
The Tornillo site will take in 360 children in the coming days and expand from there, according to the department spokesperson.
Temperatures in the area have hovered around 100 degrees; the department spokesperson said the tents will be air-conditioned.
Tornillo was not one of the three sites the Trump administration indicated it was considering earlier this week. McClatchy reported Tuesday — and a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson later confirmed — that the federal government was eyeing Fort Bliss near El Paso, Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo as possible sites for tent cities to shelter the children.
State and federal lawmakers from the El Paso area decried that proposal earlier this week, particularly raising concerns about housing children on military bases.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents El Paso, in a statement Thursday evening denounced the policy that created a need for the encampment in the first place.
“It really doesn’t matter where the tent cities are constructed, we shouldn’t be doing this,” the statement read. “We shouldn’t be separating children from their parents.”
The Texas Tribune April 8, 2018NewsComments Off on Federal Government Tells Border Prosecutors to Adopt “Zero-Tolerance” Policy on Immigration
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday ordered federal prosecutors on the southwest border to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy against anyone who enters or attempts to enter the country illegally, a mandate he said “supersedes” any prior directives.
“To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” Sessions said in a statement. “To the Department’s prosecutors, I urge you: promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens.”
The directive instructs all federal prosecutors on the southwest border to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals for alleged violations of federal immigration illegal-entry laws.
In a one-page memo sent to federal prosecutors on the southwest border, Sessions said the goal wasn’t merely developing more immigration cases, but instead an end to the “illegality in [the] immigration system.” He added that if the new policy requires more resources, the offices should identify and request those to the Department of Justice.
The mandate comes the same week President Donald Trump has assailed Democrats for supporting what he said are “catch and release” policies where individuals apprehended by the Border Patrol are released while they await a court date. (The Washington Post later reported that “catch and release” actually flourished under the George W. Bush administration.)
It’s unclear what the mandate will do to the current immigration-court case backlog, which was at more than 684,000 as of February, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That figure includes more than 105,000 cases pending in Texas courts, higher than any state but California.
The move is the latest in a busy week for the administration, which has also seen Trump sign a proclamation ordering the deployment of National Guard troops to the border until construction of his promised wall on the southwest border is complete.
The Texas Tribune March 22, 2018NewsComments Off on Congress Passes $1.3 Trillion Spending Bill that Includes Some Border Wall Funding
WASHINGTON — Congress took a major step on Thursday to keep the federal government’s doors open through the end of September, passing a massive spending bill that includes some funding for a border wall.
The $1.3 trillion measure, which lawmakers scrambled to pass ahead of a government shutdown deadline Friday night, was on its way to President Donald Trump after the U.S. Senate passed it late Thursday on a vote of 65-32. The new spending restores funding on many of the austerity measures Republicans implemented since taking over the U.S. House in 2011.
As such, it is expected to further increase the ever-ballooning federal deficit.
The bill will boost spending on various projects, including infrastructure and a border wall. The $1.6 billion allocated for a wall fell far short of the Trump administration’s demands, and Democrats were able toexact significant restrictions on the wall’s construction, including avoiding building it in a wildlife preserve and blocking any construction of the barrier as a solid concrete wall.
Earlier Thursday, the House passed the bill on a vote of 256-167. Most Texas Republicans fell in line with their leadership on the bill, but a handful from the conservative wing of the party voted against it: U.S. Reps. Brian Babin of Woodville, Joe Barton of Ennis, Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Ted Poe of Humble and John Ratcliffe of Heath.
There are no provisions in the legislation to address extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which was a major issue for many Texas Democrats. The Obama-era program, which Trump has made efforts to end, affects about 124,000 Texans, allowing them to remain in the country and work without the immediate threat of deportation.
Additionally, U.S. Sen.Ted Cruz, R-Texas,expressed frustration earlier in the week to The Texas Tribune that legislation he supported that would overhaul Congress’ sexual harassment policies was not included in the bill.
But two Texans in particular were big winners with the legislation: U.S. Sen.John Cornynand U.S. Rep.Mac Thornberryof Clarendon.
Cornyn spent the last several months pushing policy that would enhance the federal background check system for purchasing firearms. He successfully attached the measure onto the spending bill earlier this week.
Thornberry, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee chairman, is one of the fiercest advocates for increased military spending. The bill approved Thursday includes a 10 percent increase in Pentagon funding from the last fiscal year.
“The bill we’re about to vote on turns the corner in fixing our planes and ships and readiness,” Thornberry said ahead of the vote Thursday. “And it also sends a very strong message to allies and adversaries alike that the United States is going to stand up and defend ourselves.”
While the midterms are still seven months out, this bill is considered one of the last significant bills Congress will address before the coming elections.