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Reunited migrant families face an uncertain future

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What it looks like inside one ICE family detention center

In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigrants walk into a building at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Currently housing 1,520 mothers and their children, about 10 percent are families who were temporarily separated and then reunited under a ?zero tolerance policy? that has since been reversed. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

DILLEY, Tex. — Inside America’s largest immigration jail — where women and children can take yoga and Zumba classes while fighting speedy expulsion from the United States — the fuzzy outline of a black-robed judge appeared on a giant plasma television.

“Let’s bring the ladies out,” immigration Judge Robert L. Powell ordered from the screen like a reality-show host, sitting 270 miles away in a courtroom at a detention center in Los Fresnos, Tex.

Nobody could find a Mam interpreter for a Guatemalan woman who spoke that Mayan language. So Powell’s docket dwindled to Mirian, a mother from El Salvador who lost her asylum bid during the frenzied weeks after the Trump administration separated her from her daughter and was seeking another chance.

But she couldn’t see Powell’s face.

“It’s blurry,” said her lawyer, Shalyn Fluharty, who asked that her client’s last name not be used for her safety.

“I’m afraid that there’s nothing we can do on this end,” Powell said.

After President Trump’s experiment in criminally prosecuting all adults who crossed the border illegally, triggering the separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents, the fate of hundreds of reunified families has come to this.

Parents who were ordered deported are pleading for a day in immigration court, saying they did not qualify for one in their initial asylum interviews because they were too distraught over their missing sons or daughters.

Several lawsuits are pending in federal courts over the separated families, and U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw — who ordered them reunited — has imposed a temporary ban on their deportations, which he reaffirmed Thursday. But much uncertainty remains.

At a hearing Friday, Sabraw signaled that he wants to keep the reunited families together, but depending on what he ultimately decides, that could mean some families will have full immigration hearings while others may not.

“We will never be able to come up with a process that is perfect,” Sabraw said at the hearing in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of California.

But lawyers say they are worried for the families’ safety.

“The stakes are life-and-death for many of these families,” said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is leading the main lawsuit in the case. “These are not just ordinary immigration cases.”

Field trips and 'flag day'

The majority of children taken from their parents as a result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy have been reunited with family members, and hundreds have been freed in the United States to await hearings in immigration court. About 500 to 600 children remain in Health and Human Services custody, in many cases because their parents were deported and officials are now trying to locate them in their homelands.

But 700 to 800 parents and children are detained and facing a faster track to deportation in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s family detention centers, including this compound in a faded Texas oil town south of San Antonio.

A top immigration official stunned Democratic lawmakers last month by likening family detention facilities to a “summer camp.” Last week officials guided reporters on a tour of Dilley’s South Texas Family Residential Center, a sprawling 2,400-bed campus, dotted with blue government-issue baby strollers and arranged into “neighborhoods” with monikers such as “Brown Bear” and “Blue Butterfly.”

Children attend school here, building solar ovens or taking trips to the zoo. They have an infirmary, a library and a cafeteria that serves roast chicken, green salad and sheet cake — all you can eat.

They celebrate holidays, including Independence Day, which at Dilley is called “international flag day.”

“We just want everyone to be happy,” said Michael Sheridan, an ICE official who helped lead the tour.

But many parents have final deportation orders, according to court records, often after little more than an interview with an asylum officer. Federal officials say the system is designed to swiftly dispense with asylum cases the government suspects are a ploy to smuggle people into the United States.

“Just because you don’t see a judge doesn’t mean you aren’t receiving due process,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in June, after Trump issued an executive order effectively halting family separations.

Migrants’ lawyers say families traumatized by the separations should be given full hearings, especially children, to determine if they truly are in fear for their lives.

Many fled violence, poverty or abuse and endured harsh conditions traveling to the United States. After they crossed the border, the Trump administration filed criminal charges against the adults and sent their children to HHS shelters scattered across the country.

The parents went through criminal trials — typically quick affairs where they pleaded guilty to crossing the border illegally and were sentenced to time served. They then were sent to immigration detention, where they had an opportunity to seek asylum, sometimes over the phone.

Many parents failed these initial interviews and were not granted a hearing.

As Mirian did the other day, these parents could ask an immigration judge to review the asylum officer’s decision. But they could not bring witnesses, as they would be able to do in a full-fledged immigration proceeding, and their lawyers often were not allowed to speak.

“That’s what we’re fighting for: For every family to have a fair day in court,” said Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the Dilley Pro-Bono Project, which offers legal aid to migrant parents and children, including some whose fates will be determined by the cases before Sabraw. “How can someone, in an hour, be sure that they made the right decision?” she said.

'I was desperate'

About 150 of Dilley’s 1,500 residents are reunited families, officials said during the tour. Another 630 reunited fathers and sons are at a family detention center in Karnes County, also in Texas.

While employees at Dilley said they do not notice a difference between the reunited families and the much larger group of migrants who were never separated, volunteers with the Pro Bono Project said the reunited women and children are reluctant to be apart and had to be prodded to accept legal help. Many suffered headaches, nightmares and depression.

“I know you don’t trust anyone, but you can trust us,” volunteer Marissa Ornelas, 20, told the reunited families.

Among the detainees is a Honduran woman named Paula who said she failed her initial asylum interview because she was frantic over being separated from her 8-year-old daughter, who was taken to Chicago for more than a month.

The officer who questioned her while she was detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos asked if she needed help finding her child. She said yes, according to the asylum officer’s notes.

The rest of the conversation is a blur, said Paula, 26, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears for her safety if she is deported.

She told the asylum officer that her mother — a supporter of an opposition political party — had been killed and that the men who did it threatened to kill her and her daughter as well, the officer’s notes show. She said her brother-in-law also threatened her. But she didn’t mention that she and her daughter had witnessed her mother’s killing, according to the notes, or that her mother had been shot.

“I was desperate. Destroyed. I didn’t know what to say,” Paula said in an interview with The Washington Post, as her daughter sat next to her, bent over a Sponge Bob coloring book.

The asylum officer believed Paula’s story — writing “applicant found credible” in a report — but denied her asylum request, checking a box that said there was “no significant possibility” that she could prove in a full immigration hearing that the Honduran government would not protect her from the threats.

The Trump administration said earlier this year that migrants must show that their home government is helpless to protect them to qualify for asylum based on fears of what Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called “private” crimes. A separate lawsuit challenging the change in criteria is pending in the District.

Eileen Blessinger, a Virginia attorney who is representing Paula pro bono, said an immigration judge and the Department of Homeland Security declined Paula’s request to overturn the asylum officer’s decision.

Paula said her daughter has not had an asylum hearing, and they dreaded the possiblity of being separated again. Both she and her daughter were crying.

“I am taking her with me,” she said. “I can’t be separated from her — and she can’t do it either. Nobody wants to leave their children.”

'How could I leave my daughter?'

Only 122 of the 25,000 migrants who have passed through Dilley this fiscal year have been deported, federal officials said. Most were released in the United States to pursue their immigration claims.

In some cases, parents waive the 20-day limit a federal consent decree established for how long minors can be in ICE custody, so they can keep their children with them at Dilley while they wait for their cases to be resolved.

The Trump administration, which spends more than $200 million a year detaining families at centers in Dilley and Karnes, is deeply frustrated with the rise in asylum-seeking families crossing the border and the various rules and court protections that often mandate their release.

On the same day that reporters toured Dilley last week, officials there tried to deport a Salvadoran woman and her daughter who are part of the D.C. lawsuit challenging the new asylum criteria.

An outraged U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan scolded government lawyers and ordered the pair brought back.

“Turn that plane around,” he said.

The next day, Mirian, 34, faced the pixelated screen in the immigration courtroom at Dilley and told Powell that she had blown her initial interview with an asylum officer because she was distraught about being separated from her teenage daughter.

They had escaped gang members in El Salvador who had threatened their lives. Once in the United States, her daughter was sent to Washington state. They were apart for 48 days.

In an interview, Mirian described crying on her bed in an immigration jail in Texas when she was called to the phone to speak with the asylum officer. She’d lost 10 pounds since her daughter was taken, and she had barely slept. Her lawyer said she has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My head was not in the right place,” she told Powell, explaining why her testimony to the asylum officer may have seemed inconsistent. “All I could think about was my daughter.”

Powell, an Obama-era appointee , has denied approximately 80 percent of the asylum cases he has heard in recent years, according to Trac, a Syracuse University organization that compiles databases on immigration courts.

On this day, he told Mirian his role was only to review the “legal sufficiency” of her asylum interview. It wasn’t a hearing.

Powell said Mirian had told the asylum officer that she came to the United States for her daughter’s benefit, not her own, a characterization that Mirian rejected. She also had been deported before, in 2015, he noted. This meant she could not qualify for full asylum, which could lead to U.S. citizenship. But she could have a chance to win protection from being deported, if given a full hearing.

Mirian acknowledged being deported before but said this time she was “running away” because she felt her life was in danger.

Fluharty, the lawyer, asked for a chance to argue her client’s case.

“Counsel?” said the judge on the blurry screen. “Denied.”

To Mirian, he said: “You are expelled from the United States.”

Her left foot began to tremble, then her right foot. She sighed, stood up, and left.

Mirian, who said she cannot read or write, said later that she was nervous before the judge.

But she said her goal never was to leave her daughter in the United States without her.

“I never said that,” she said. “How could I leave my daughter?”