A Guatemalan mother and her three children had already spent two weeks in a for-profit family detention center in South Texas when U.S. immigration authorities forcibly split them apart, sending her to a different adult lockup, and her kids to a youth detention center somewhere in New York. Now, more than a month later, and even after Wednesday’s executive order, she’s still separated from her children and doesn’t know where they are, according to new documents filed in a federal lawsuit Friday.
“I don’t know when I will see my kids again,” wrote MGU, the pseudonym her attorneys are using, in an affidavit. “I don’t know the people that are taking care of them, so I’m worried every day. … Every minute that I don’t have information about my kids is anguish. Every minute that I am separated from my kids is anguish.”
MGU’s case is strange and troubling. For two weeks in early May, she and her kids were held in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, before being split apart. Unlike most parents separated from their kids under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, MGU was never charged with illegal entry, a petty misdemeanor. In fact, she passed a “credible fear” interview while locked up, establishing her right to pursue an asylum claim in the United States. (Her husband was a community organizer in Guatemala who faced death threats.) But two days after the interview, on May 18, she was ripped away from her children anyways.
According to the lawsuit, an immigration official first gave them the “good news” that they would be released, then the “bad news” that MGU would be taken to an adult Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in nearby Pearsall, while her kids would be taken nearly 2,000 miles away to an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter somewhere in New York. All four of them immediately “burst out in tears,” according to the lawsuit.
Jerry Wesevich, the woman’s attorney, told the Observer he doesn’t understand the government’s rationale for separating MGU from her kids, and they’re demanding answers as part of the lawsuit.
In her affidavit, the mother says that she’s allowed two 10-minute phone calls with her kids per week, but she says she doesn’t always have money to pay for the calls. Plus, sometimes she can’t reach them at the shelter. Her three children, the youngest of whom is 2 years old, are unable to tell her exactly where they are. (Wesevich isn’t sure either.) “I can’t be OK without information and without my kids,” she wrote.
And MGU is not alone. Two days after Trump signed his executive order purportedly ending the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, parents around the country are still languishing in various holding facilities without knowledge of their children’s whereabouts or how they might one day be reunited. Even parents with legal representation are stranded in the bureaucratic chaos of the Trump administration’s own making.
“When you’re a parent, you want details about your kid that day,” said Wesevich, who’s representing three Central American parents, including MGU, who are suing the federal government over their separations. “They have a system, but it’s completely inadequate,” he said. ORR maintains a hotline for parents or their attorneys, but either no one answers or the agency staff have no clue where the child is located, Wesevich said.
Another one of Wesevish’s clients, an asylum-seeker from Honduras, hasn’t spoken to his 12-year-old daughter since June 4 and has no idea where she is, according to his affidavit. “I’ve asked immigration officials where my child is and none can tell me,” he wrote from the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos.
On a conference call Friday afternoon, other advocates also said they were struggling to make sense of a chaotic system. Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that even if lawyers reach someone through the ORR hotline, they aren’t told where a child is located. Instead, they have to wait for a caseworker to call them back, and so far, they often haven’t. “There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
Olivares added that out of 381 cases his organization is tracking, they’ve located only two children so far. And 381 is a fraction of the more than 2,300 kids who’ve been separated from their parents in the last two months.
On Friday, Wesevich asked a federal judge to force the government agencies involved to provide information to the parents that he represents about their kids’ location. Soon, he said, he’ll file another request that the court compel their reunification.
ICE and ORR officials did not respond to requests for comment.