More Than 150 Families Separated at the Border Remain Locked Up in Texas

As public attention shifts to a caravan of Central American migrants, many families remain locked up three months after being reunified. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering detaining future asylum-seekers indefinitely.

Alia Salem

As public attention shifts to a caravan of Central American migrants, many families remain locked up three months after being reunified. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering detaining future asylum-seekers indefinitely.

by Jason Buch
October 31, 2018

In the two months father and child spent apart, Felipe’s 7-year-old son was bounced from a Border Patrol station in Texas to a nearby processing center for immigrant children, followed by more than a month with a foster family in California.

But the pair’s arduous journey from Honduras didn’t end when they were finally reunited on July 21 at a detention center in Port Isabel. They’re still in detention at a facility for families in Karnes City, 200 miles north of where they first asked agents for asylum in May.

After a head-spinning, nearly six-month effort to seek refuge in the U.S., they don’t know when they’ll be released or when their asylum case might move forward. Felipe said he fled Honduras after his father-in-law was killed by a powerful man in his community and his family faced threats.

The 28-year-old father and his son are among the more than 150 reunited families still locked up in two South Texas detention centers, some for as long as three months. That’s despite a court ruling limiting how long the government can hold children and President Donald Trump’s decision in July to stop separating families at the border.

“[My son] talks with his friends, and they tell him when they’re going to leave [the detention center]. And he asks me about it,” Felipe, who has been given a pseudonym because of his fear of retribution, told me by phone from the Karnes City facility. “It’s something very difficult for me to explain to him. … I feel like it’s making him sad, because his friends tell him they’re waiting, but we can’t get out of here.”

Dilley
The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley.  Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

During the Obama administration, the 830-bed Karnes City family detention center for fathers and a similar 2,400-bed facility in Dilley that holds mothers were the subject of lawsuits, frequent protests and extensive media coverage. But under Trump, policies like the separation of at least 2,500 families at the border and travel bans targeting Muslim countries have drawn attention away from the two controversial facilities near San Antonio. As news coverage now focuses on a caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to the U.S. and Trump’s deployment of troops to the border, public attention has shifted away from the 115 reunited families still held in Karnes City and 38 in Dilley.

Attorneys and advocates working with asylum-seeking families at the facilities say prolonged detention is harmful for parents and children who made the perilous journey across Mexico after fleeing some of the most dangerous countries in the world. Problems faced by children in detention, including developmental delays, depression and behavioral challenges, are compounded for the families who were separated at the border, they said.

“We always are working with traumatized families, because of what they’re fleeing and then the very difficult journey here, and the horrible conditions at the border and then the detained setting, and it’s so much worse for these families,” said Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. “When they arrived, they had just been reunified. They were extremely traumatized. Both the children and the mothers are terrified that they could be separated again at any time.”

The administration had agreed in September to review the asylum cases of reunited families still in detention, but they didn’t start that process until last week. The delays have left families “really frustrated,” said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit representing families in the Karnes City facility.

“Many of them see deportation as the quickest way out of detention,” he said.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason to why some families are being released and some are being kept in detention, according to Murdza and lawyers for RAICES. Since the first reunited families showed up at the facilities in mid-July, hundreds of other families that were never separated have come and gone from Karnes City and thousands of families from Dilley, activists said.

A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which operates the detention centers, said the agency couldn’t comment because of pending litigation.

Felipe, the Honduran father, pleaded guilty in a McAllen federal courtroom in May to a misdemeanor charge of illegally entering the country — he was sentenced to time served — and was taken to an ICE facility in Georgia. During that time, Felipe said, he was unable to reach his son, whom he later learned was in foster care.

After a judge ordered the government to reunite families, Felipe said he was taken to a detention center in Port Isabel, and on July 21 saw his son for the first time since he left the Border Patrol facility to go to court in May.

“When they brought me the boy, he was very different,” Felipe said. “He didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to speak. When I would ask him what was wrong, he didn’t want to tell me.”

Felipe lost his asylum bid while he was in detention in Georgia, but his case will be reviewed as part of the court settlement of lawsuits challenging family separation. If his claim is again rejected, officials will interview his son.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has signaled in a variety of ways — including lengthy detentions like Felipe’s — that it wants to return to the Obama-era policy of indefinitely detaining thousands of asylum-seeking families. That dismays some immigration attorneys and activists, who point out that apprehensions at the border are little more than half what they were a decade ago. Further, they point to the Trump administration’s shelving of a community supervision program that was hailed as an effective and less expensive alternative to detaining families.

democratic convention
Immigration and family separation were a major focus at the 2018 Texas Democratic Convention.  Justin Miller

It’s also raised concerns that after the furor over family separations, long-term detention now looks like a palatable alternative.

“People who don’t see what’s going on day-to-day in family detention are relieved to hear these children are back with their mothers,” Murdza said. “Certainly while that is important, it’s not sufficient for the wellbeing of a child. Medical care is not sufficient. Education is not sufficient. It’s retraumatizing people who come to our country to ask for help … and it doesn’t align with what I understand to be American values.”

The Trump administration has proposed new regulations to work around a 2015 court ruling that banned indefinitely holding families until their asylum cases are closed, a process that can take months or years. The Obama administration tried detaining families indefinitely to discourage asylum-seekers, but a judge said that policy violated a landmark 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement. Today, most families taken to Dilley or Karnes are released within 20 days and allowed to pursue their asylum cases while remaining in the United States, often with the parents wearing ankle monitors.

The government’s proposed regulations would create federal licenses for the family detention centers, which would meet one of the Flores agreement’s requirements for housing children long-term. If implemented, these rules are almost guaranteed to spark a new round of litigation.

As part of its settlement negotiations over the family separation policy, the government received permission from a federal judge to offer families a choice: Be detained together in Karnes City or Dilley indefinitely or be separated again, with the parent in a detention center and the child in foster care or at an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter.

For Felipe, there is no question of what path he’d choose. When asked if he’d consider allowing his son to return to a foster family while he remained in detention, he gave a bitter laugh.

“I don’t want my son to go back to where he was,” Felipe said. “That’s not something that any father is going to want, to be separated from his son. When my son got here, he couldn’t sleep because he was so scared. He cried at night … I don’t want him to go back to living like that.”

Jason Buch is an independent journalist based in Seattle. A native of Austin, Buch spent 10 years covering immigration and the Texas-Mexico border for Texas newspapers.

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