The number of people who were apprehended or turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border last month dipped nearly 20 percent when compared to May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday.
The total number of apprehensions on the southwest border was 34,114 last month, down from 40,338 in May. That figure, which includes people who were apprehended between the ports of entry, also shows a slight decrease in the number of unaccompanied minors and family units that were caught.
The decrease comes amid a firestorm over President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their families. Trump’s policy directed that anyone who crossed the border between a port of entry be criminally charged. Since parents and kids can’t be kept in jail together, thousands of families were split up. Trump has since signed an executive order designed to end family separations, though many families have not yet been reunited.
In a statement, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Tyler Q. Houlton touted the “zero tolerance” and said the government would continue to enforce current immigration laws while Congress debates a change to the current system.
“As we have said before, the journey north is dangerous and puts individuals in the hands of smugglers and traffickers,” Houlton said. “We continue to call on Congress to address the crisis at the border by closing legal loopholes that drive illegal immigration.”
The number of family units caught on the southern border dipped only slightly during the same time frame; from 9,485 to 9,449, while the number of unaccompanied children fell from to 6,388 to 5,115. The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas remained the busiest in the country last month, with about 14,700 apprehensions occurring there last month. That figure includes 5,420 family units and 2,576 unaccompanied minors. The second busiest was Tucson with 4,146 total apprehensions. That was followed by the El Paso sector (which includes New Mexico) which registered 3,572 total apprehensions, including 1,604 family units and 839 unaccompanied minors.
Though the DHS statement said the decline last month came after the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, figures provided by DHS show that traffic has generally declined in the summer months over the last few years. Since the 2013 federal fiscal year, only 2017 saw an increase in traffic from May to June.
And despite the drop in apprehensions over the last two months, government data shows that during the current fiscal year, from October to June, overall apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied minors increased when compared to the same time frame in during the 2017 fiscal year. From October 2016 to June 2017 about 33,000 unaccompanied minors and 63,400 family units were caught. From October 2017 thought last month, those figures were 37,450 and 68,650, respectively.
On Monday afternoon at a migrant shelter in this border city, Mario, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who was separated from his daughter, struggled to tell reporters how all he wanted to do was wish her happy birthday and ask for her forgiveness.
On Thursday, he said he’s had the chance to do both after finally learning his 10-year-old daughter’s location: She’s somewhere in El Paso, he said, and she’s safe.
“I said, ‘Please forgive me for letting them separate us,’” he said. “But she’s a smart girl, and she understood that the most important thing is that we’re going to be able to be together.”
Mario was one of 32 undocumented parents who had been separated from their children after being apprehended or turning themselves in to federal border officers under a zero-tolerance policy on undocumented border crossers that’s led to more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents.
Ruben Garcia, the director of the El Paso-based Annunciation House where the migrants were received, said the group was among the first to be released after President Donald Trump reversed course and halted family separations through an executive order.
Some, like Mario, didn’t even know where their children were after arriving at the shelter.
Garcia said about a dozen parents from that group remain at the shelter, and all of them now know where their children are — although not all have been able to speak to them. Some of the other parents are trying to connect with family members in the United States who were likely named the children’s designated sponsors when the families were caught and separated.
But before he can be reunited with his daughter, Mario — who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid the possibility of jeopardizing his asylum claim — needsthe Honduran government to fax a copy of his birth certificate to the legal representatives who are helping him while he’s at the shelter.
Garcia said the birth certificate is one of the documents that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has custody of the children, asks to see before approving reunifications, but those aren’t returned to the parents after they are released from federal custody.
“And so when you talk to ORR, you say, ‘ICE took my birth certificate,’ and they’ll say that ICE and ORR don’t talk to each other,” Garcia said. “It’s just a problematic system.”
A spokesperson with the ICE field office in El Paso said the agency does not keep identifying documents once an immigrant is released from its custody.
Garcia said most of the parents who were apprehended and separated will likely be reunited with their children wherever the designated sponsor is located because that’s a faster option than starting the process over to bring the parent and child together.
To locate their children, the parents have been reaching out to the designated sponsors, who then have to connect them with the ORR social worker in charge of the child’s case.
“They call the [sponsor] and he or she gives the parent the name and phone number of the social worker,” Garcia said. “That doesn’t tell me where my kid is, that just tells me who the social worker is. I call the social worker, and that’s when I find out my kid is in Chicago or New York or wherever.”
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