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The chaotic effort to reunite immigrant parents with their separated kids

This mother and son from Brazil were separated after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in August 2017. The pair were seeking asylum from domestic abuse. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Bob Moore/The Washington Post)

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — Each of the mothers had a different memory of the moment she was separated from her child.

For some, it was outside a Border Patrol station just north of the Rio Grande, shortly after being apprehended. For others, it was after an interrogation by federal authorities in a bitterly cold air-conditioned office.

Jodi Goodwin, an attorney in Harlingen, Tex., has heard more than two dozen variations of those stories from Central American mothers who have been detained for days or weeks without their children. So far, she has not been able to locate a single one of their offspring.

“It’s just a total labyrinth,” she said.

Even though the Trump administration has halted its policy of separating illegal border crossers from their children, many of the over 2,300 youths removed from migrant parents since May 5 remain in shelters and foster homes across the country. The U.S. government has done little to help with the reunifications, attorneys say, prompting them to launch a frantic, improvised effort to find the children — some of them toddlers.

In a June 19 phone interview with AP, Blanca Orantes-López recounted being separated from her 8-year-old son, Abel, upon crossing illegally into Texas. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

One legal aid organization, the Texas Civil Rights Project, is representing more than 300 parents and has been able to track down only two children.

“Either the government wasn’t thinking at all about how they were going to put these families back together, or they decided they just didn’t care,” said Natalia Cornelio, with the organization.

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Government officials say they have given detained parents a flier with a toll-free number for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the U.S. agency that is usually in charge of providing shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children. But not a single one of Goodwin’s clients had received one, she said. Lawyers maintain that when they have called the number, often no one answered. In some cases, when someone did pick up, that person refused to offer details of where children had been taken, the lawyers said.

“You wait and wait for no information,” said Jerry Wesevich, an attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid who is suing the government over the family separations.

Further complicating matters are bureaucratic errors that could leave government officials unaware that a child’s parent is detained in the United States. Attorneys also worry that some toddlers, or children who speak indigenous languages, might not have been able to give officials their parents’ complete names.

Because of such complications, attorneys and former U.S. officials have begun speaking about the possibility of “permanent separations.”

In the case of one Guatemalan family, the Border Patrol failed to note in its apprehension report that a mother and daughter crossed the border together, according to Wesevich. Without that information, government officials might not be aware that the child’s parent is detained in the United States.

In other cases, Cornelio said, children arrive at shelters without the facility knowing that they have been separated from their parents, meaning they could be considered unaccompanied minors rather than children in need of reunification.

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The Office of Refugee Resettlement typically tries to find family members, foster parents or sponsors to take in children in its care. But it can take weeks before such people are approved to receive the children. That process normally applies to children who arrived in the United States without a relative.

“For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual,” Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on Wednesday. The refu­gee resettlement office is part of HHS.

The U.S. government spent months developing the family-separation system, but authorities were struggling on Thursday to figure out how to reunite detained parents with children. There was no system for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handled the parents’ cases, to work on the issue with the refu­gee resettlement office, which is responsible for the children.

Spokesmen at the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Attorneys have described heart-wrenching meetings with their clients, who ask again and again for information about their children, often weeping in South Texas detention centers.

“We have to say, ‘We don’t know where your child is. The government is responsible for keeping your child safe,’” Wesevich said. “No parent would be satisfied with that.”

Goodwin said: “I tell them, ‘I’m not going to lie to you if I don’t know where your child is.’ ”

Some attorneys have been able to confirm with the government that their client’s child is in custody, but even in those cases, government authorities have often been unwilling to arrange phone calls between the two, or provide details about where the child is held, lawyers said.

“Reunification is obviously the goal, but they won’t even set up a phone call, so a parent can know that a child is safe,” said Rochelle Garza, an attorney in Brownsville, Tex.

In the absence of government assistance, attorneys have developed their own ad hoc system of tracking down the children of their clients. They ask the parents for the children’s names and then pass those along to legal organizations — many of them federally funded — that are representing the undocumented children.

But because the children’s lawyers are overwhelmed by their caseloads, responses can take days or weeks.

On Thursday morning, Goodwin began training a “rapid-response team” of volunteer lawyers who arrived from Washington, D.C., to help with the reunifications and asylum claims. Other lawyers waited outside a detention center in Brownsville, Tex., to meet some of the parents.

In some cases, there’s an especially urgent need for reunifications. On Thursday morning, the cases of 17 undocumented parents were dismissed in a federal court in McAllen, Tex., a possible shift away from the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

“But the children are still detained and there’s no reunification plan,” Cornelio said.

Erik Hanshew, an assistant public defender in El Paso, described dealing with the refu­gee resettlement office as a “chaotic and byzantine” process in an op-ed for The Washington Post this week.

“Some of our investigators have waited nearly an hour just to get a person on the line. And once they find someone, their inquiries are met with vague statements that the child is in the United States,” he wrote.

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