In a statement issued late Saturday, the government said it has 2,053 “separated minors” in its custody, while 522 migrant children have already been returned to their parents. The government said it would allow mothers and fathers who had been separated from their children and are facing deportation to request that their children be sent home with them.
“The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families,” the statement read. “This process is well coordinated.”
One administration official said Sunday the number of children returned to their families to date may be “slightly higher” than 522 because the Department of Health and Human Services has released some minors to the custody of other sponsors, typically close relatives.
The joint declaration by the Department of Homeland Security and HHS said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center “as the primary family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody.”
The facility is located near Los Fresnos, a sandy, remote outpost of 5,500 people on the southernmost tip of Texas that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. The detention center is surrounded by a wind farm, a wildlife refuge and miles of empty prairie populated by coyotes, falcons and bull snakes.
The main road to the center is under construction and closed to traffic, with vehicles having to detour over piles of rocks and rutted roads. But it turns into a long paved driveway lined with palm trees that leads to a security guard shack, where guards turned away reporters Sunday and barred photos and videos.
Port Isabel is about 23 miles northeast of Brownsville, the nearest city, and can hold more than 1,000 detainees, according to advocacy groups. At midday Sunday, there was no obvious activity near its entrance, save for four state police trucks rushing down a dirt road.
Saturday night’s statement about reunifications came three days after Trump signed a hastily written executive order to quell a public outcry and halt his administration’s practice of taking away the children of migrant parents who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Domestic and global furor over the separation system has not been mollified by Trump’s order, with federal agencies still struggling to explain how they would put families back together and ensure migrant children did not remain in U.S. foster care thousands of miles from their deported parents.
Multiple reports have surfaced in recent weeks of parents sent back to Central America without their children and little idea where their kids may be held at one of more than 100 government shelters.
Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal immigration, parents who cross illegally with children have been sent to face criminal prosecution while their kids are assigned to foster-care facilities run by HHS.
The parents — many of whom say they are fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse and want to seek asylum in the United States — are typically then transferred to adult immigration jails run by ICE. They have been given little information about how to find their children or regain custody.
The lack of coordination between government agencies has led to weeks of confusion and swelling numbers of children at risk of being stranded thousands of miles from their parents.
Under the government’s new plan, according to the statement, parents will receive more information about the whereabouts of their children and telephone operators will facilitate more frequent communication.
The reunification plan will have a few exceptions, the statement said.
“There will be a small number of children who were separated for reasons other than zero tolerance that will remain separated,” it read. “Generally only if the familial relationship cannot be confirmed, we believe the adult is a threat to the safety of the child, or the adult is a criminal alien.”
ICE will also implement a system for tracking separated family members and rejoining them before their deportation as a unit. It will put parents separated from their children in designated units where they will have easier access to communication, and ICE agents will coordinate travel planning and documentation with HHS personnel to make sure parents and children depart the United States together, the statement said.
Sixteen children were due to be reunited with their parents within 24 hours, the statement said, after bad weather delayed their travel. The statement did not indicate how long the government would take to return the other 2,053 separated minors who remain in federal custody.
Maria Sacchetti reported from Port Isabel in Los Fresnos, Texas. Nick Miroff reported from Washington.