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Still separated: Nearly 500 migrant children taken from their parents remain in U.S. custody

People who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally sit at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s central processing center in McAllen, Tex. Children were taken away from their parents at the center in May and June as part of President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” effort. Nearly 500 children still remain separated from their families. (AFP/Getty Images)

Lawyers are cold-calling phone numbers in far-flung Central American villages, and enlisting church pastors and schoolteachers to help. They are spreading the word on radio stations, putting up posters and setting up Spanish-language hotlines. They are trying to reach every parent separated from their children by the Trump administration.

More than a month after a court deadline passed for the government to reunite families divided by President Trump’s border crackdown, nearly 500 children remain in U.S. government-funded shelters without their parents, according to court papers filed Thursday night.

Advocates and government officials say it could be weeks, months or longer before they are together.

Nearly two-thirds of the 497 minors still in custody — including 22 “tender-age” children, who are younger than 5 — have parents who were deported, mostly in the first weeks of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

Their lawyers are locating parents in their home countries to ask whether they want their children sent back, or would rather have them remain in the United States to pursue their own immigration claims. At the same time, the lawyers are trying to bring some deported parents back to seek permission to live in the United States — a decision that might end up with U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who issued the reunification order.

Other parents are still being vetted or are ineligible to immediately regain custody — because they are in custody, in some cases for minor or years-old offenses.

Government officials say they are moving as fast as possible, despite legal challenges and complicated logistics — including dozens of children who officials say want to go home to their parents, but have not been sent because of a temporary court order that prohibits their deportation.

The U.S. government is denying passports to American citizens living along the border

“There are a lot of folks who want to move forward with reunification, and we want as few roadblocks as possible,” Justice Department lawyer Scott Stewart said at a hearing Friday.

The government expects to reunite all the families eventually, unless parents pose a safety threat or decide that their children should pursue asylum in the United States. Children in those circumstances probably would have relatives or other sponsors they could live with, officials say. If not, they could end up in long-term foster care.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which fought for Sabraw’s reunification order, suspects the children are agreeing to leave the United States only because they miss their parents, not because they feel safe in their homelands, ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said. Lawyers are trying to bring some deported parents back so families can apply for asylum together instead.

Experts say the months children spent apart from family members can cause them permanent emotional harm.

“I’m really concerned about the longer-term mental health and well-being of the kids,” said Christie Turner, deputy director of legal services for Kids in Need of Defense, which provides lawyers for migrant children. “How much damage is being done to them?”

The government announced the family separation effort on May 7, saying it was necessary to criminally prosecute migrants who crossed the border illegally with their children. An international outcry prompted Trump to end the practice June 20. Days later, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Sabraw stopped the deportation of separated parents and gave the government 30 days to return more than 2,600 children.

‘Deleted’ families: What went wrong with Trump’s family-separation effort

The government had no reunification system, and officials worked for weeks out of an emergency command center to identify which minors belonged to which adults and explore safety concerns.

More than 1,400 children were reunited by the July 26 deadline, in most cases released with their parents in the United States to await immigration proceedings or sent together to an immigration jail.

But the pace of reunifications has slowed significantly, leaving hundreds of youngsters scattered in shelters that cost taxpayers about $250 to $750 per child per day.

Government lawyers said in court filings that they have contacted virtually all of the 322 deported parents whose children remain in U.S. custody. But the ACLU said they have not been able to reach as many as 80 parents, in many cases because the contact information was “inoperable or ineffective.”

Sabraw told the government Friday to provide updated information to the ACLU.

“Moving with all due speed, of course, is important because many, many families still remain separated and that will continue to be the case until, and unless, these issues are resolved,” Sabraw said. “Work hard this weekend over those issues.”

Graphic: How many migrant children are still separated from their families?

In one case, the government listed a father’s language as Spanish, when he really spoke an indigenous Guatemalan language. When the lawyers reached him, they didn’t have an interpreter and had to call back.

Advocates say the effect of the separations is easy to see once children are returned to their parents. In one recent video, a curly-haired toddler squirms away from his mother when they are reunited at a Houston airport after 3½ months apart.

“My love,” his mother says as the boy refuses to hug her back. “I’m your mommy.”

He crawls into a corner, and she dissolves into tears.

A 7-year-old girl who has been in custody in New York since June could not stop crying when lawyers visited her in early August, Turner said.

Taylor Levy, legal coordinator for Annunciation House, a nonprofit organization in El Paso that aids migrants, said some children were rushed to Texas in recent weeks thinking that they would rejoin their parents, only to be returned to shelters without explanation. Others were reunited with their parents on buses and then split up again — allegedly when the parents refused to waive their children’s right to seek asylum so they could be deported together, Levy said.

Lawyers say some parents have not gotten their children back because of minor or years-old offenses that normally would not affect custody decisions, including one parent with a 14-year-old theft conviction. In dozens of other cases, advocates say, it is unclear why parents and children have not been reunited.

In shelters, ‘They told us to behave, or we’d be there forever’

Levy said lawyers at Annunciation House have called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement several times since the deadline, including once this week, to ask why detained parents are still separated from children as young as 4. She said the officials told them that the children had been released to guardians. But they were still in government shelters.

Lauren Connell, pro bono counsel at Akin Gump’s New York office, said she has been unable to find out why a 36-year-old Honduran woman remains detained in Sierra Blanca, Tex., separated from her 9-year-old-son. She said the woman, who identified herself solely by her middle name, Marleni, hasn’t seen the boy since May, although they speak twice a week.

Connell said federal officials told them on Thursday that Marleni and her son would be reunited soon. ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa declined to comment on the case.

Some deported parents have told the government they want their children to pursue their immigration cases in the United States, because they think the youths will be safer and have a better future here. That number rose from 139 last week to 167 in this week’s filings.

At an immigration detention center in El Paso, a 38-year-old Guatemalan woman whom Connell represents is wrestling with that choice. She fled gang violence with her teenage son, who is being held in a shelter in Brownsville. But she failed her initial asylum interview, partly because she was traumatized by the separation from her son, Connell said.

On Friday, Connell said her client was told she will have a new asylum interview next week. If she does not prevail, she may leave her teenage son in the United States, where he could live with her ex-husband.

Stricter vetting means more time in custody for migrant youth

The Trump administration says dozens of separated children have made clear to immigration judges that they want to return home to their deported parents, but immigration officials have been delayed in sending them because of a court order barring deportations of children involved in litigation over the forced separations. The government is asking Sabraw to make clear that officials do not need additional court permission to allow such children to leave voluntarily.

At the same time, the ACLU says it continues to investigate reports that some parents were coerced into waiving their right to seek asylum, to be reunited with their children.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees the federal contractors that care for the children in shelters, says the goal is to find a parent or guardian for every child in U.S. custody — not only those who are still separated but also the tens of thousands of teenagers who cross the border on their own each year.

Wolfe said the separated children are treated the same as the rest of the more than 11,000 minors in ORR care, many of whom have relatives in the United States waiting to take them in. They get three meals a day, snacks, schooling, sports, medical care, access to lawyers and regular phone calls with their parents.

“For our purposes, the services are identical to the others,” Wolfe said. “Once we’re referred a child, the child is sent to one of our shelters just like a minor who crosses the border alone.”