By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Time is ticking for US border authorities to reunite children separated from their parents at the US border. The deadline handed to them on June 27 by a California judge is 30 days, 14 days for children under the age of 5. That task is easier said than done. In an interview with Christine Reis, Director of the Human Rights Institute of the University of St Thomas School of Law, Vatican News learned about the complications such reunification entails.
Decision made too quickly
The “zero tolerance” decision “happened very quickly", Ms Reis says, “and there was not appropriate planning”. In addition, there is not adequate space to place all of those entering the US in detention centers. According to Ms Reis, the three family detention centers in operation are not “equipped to handle even a small portion” of the immigrants who come in.
In order to reunite children with parents, “you have to be able to prove that the child actually belongs to that parent, you have to figure out where the parent has been transferred to, and where the child has been transferred to”. Some of the children are so young that they cannot communicate or verify who their parents are, she said.
Verification through documents, such as a birth certificate, would take too long, according to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, Alex Azar. Therefore, HHS will now be using DNA testing to match children with parents.
How many children have been separated?
There is still no exact understanding of how many children have been separated. “They’re saying it’s upwards of 2,000”, Ms Reis said. “But we really don’t know if its 24 hundred, 25 hundred”. That number has now risen to about 3,000 due to a court order requiring HHS to reunite migrant families who were separated before zero tolerance began.
Problems do not end with reunification
Once these very traumatized children and parents are reunited, the problem is still not resolved. “If there is mandatory detention, where do you keep everybody? Now you have to keep the families intact and we don’t have the space”, Ms Reis said.
Deportation—with or without their children
Some parents already facing deportation are still not reunited with their children. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued a new form entitled “Separated Parent’s Removal Form”. It states that it is for “detained alien parents with administratively final orders of removal”. These parents are “entitled to be reunited with their child(ren) and may choose for their child(ren) to accompany them on their removal or may choose to be removed without their child(ren)".
Lee Gelernt, of the American Civil Liberties Union, has said that they have asked the government to stop using the form because it seems to suggest that the “parents must waive their right to contest removal if they want to get their child back”. Diane Eikenberry of the National Immigrant Justice Center interprets the form as a “manifestion of the complete disregard that ICE has for anyone’s ability to make a claim for protection, and not least the children’s ability to do that”.
There is such confusion in the system that it has been reported that parents who passed the credible fear interview, and are not facing deportation, were given the form.