Chaos. Confusion. Uncertainty.
That’s what lawyers from Massachusetts who volunteered at the US-Mexico border said they found as the government struggled to reunite thousands of children separated from their parents under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” border
As a court-ordered deadline loomed Thursday, the federal government said it had returned 1,820 children to their parents or guardians, while more than 700 children had not been reunited because the parents had not cleared criminal background checks or other verifications. More than half of those parents, about 430, had been deported without their children.
The futures of their children remain uncertain.
The heart-wrenching images and stories that resulted from the Trump administration’s widely criticized family separation policy, which was intended to curb illegal immigration, motivated thousands of volunteers, including some local lawyers, to rush to the southern border to offer their services to families that had been torn apart. The policy was reversed in late June, and a federal judge in California ordered reunifications by July 26.
“Even before I got involved, I knew they wouldn’t meet this date,” said Susanne Gilliam, an attorney from Sudbury who returned Wednesday after a week volunteering in El Paso with the Immigration Justice Campaign, an organization dedicated to increasing access to attorneys for immigrants in detention.
Volunteers interviewed by the Globe described their efforts to navigate a maze of bureaucracy, and their difficulty in locating both parents and children, who in some cases were sent to facilities far from the border. They also described rushed parking lot reunions in cases where the parents and children found one another amid the chaos.
Gilliam said she was she was shocked by the number of parents who were coerced into signing documents they did not understand.
Numerous parents described signing one form in particular, she said, adding that she had seen a copy that one of her clients had. The form was written in both English and Spanish, but she said, some parents only had it read to them in Spanish. It included the words “Parent/child reunification” at the top and, she said, had a checkbox next to the sentence: “I wish to be reunified with my child to be repatriated to my home country.”
“In some cases, they only translated the first half” of the sentence, she said referring to the phrase “I want to be reunified with my child.”
Jennifer Rikoski, a partner at Ropes and Gray, a Boston law firm, said she too was struck by the stories of parents, most of whom were seeking asylum, who said they had been misled by the government officers. Some were told their children couldn’t attend court hearings and would be waiting afterward, while others, she said, were told their daughters must attend an orientation session. After they were separated, the parents did not see their children again.
She is helping manage what has become a weekly rotation of about two dozen attorneys and staff from her firm who have been volunteering at the border, helping to reunite 23 families. The lawyers have agreed to represent the families until their immigration proceedings are complete.
“Friends were reaching out to me and colleagues were reaching out to me, saying, ‘What can we do?’ And I just didn’t know,” she said.
Then she had an epiphany: “I was like, ‘I can go to Texas. I can rent a car. I can figure this out.’ ”
And she did, booking a flight to Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. The goal of that 48-hour trip in mid-June was to figure out how best to help. She returned to Texas two weeks later with a team of attorneys.
“Each week has been dramatically different,” she said.
Since the court ruling, there has been a flurry of activity. And it has become increasingly difficult to track the whereabouts of parents and children, who were held in separate facilities, often in different states.
“It was chaos down there,” said Michael Homer, an associate at Ropes and Gray whose 10-month-old son served as his motivation to volunteer. “I cannot fathom the pain these parents are experiencing.”
He returned to Boston on July 20 after volunteering at the Port Isabel Detention Center deep in south Texas and said it was clear there hadn’t been much thought about how to reunite families or what to do with them once they are reunited.
He and others described instances in which immigration agents at detention facilities said someone was no longer there – but they were, often in a holding room for processing. Or, a detainee might disappear from the online ICE locator system only to reappear later, possibly at a different facility. Sometimes, attorneys arrived at a detention facility only to learn their client had been transferred in the middle of the night.
Detainees can’t contact their attorney or family members to tell them where they are because once they receive a notice of release or if they are moved to another facility they are cut off from their detention phone account.
“A lot of the issues are compounded by the size of the immigration bureaucracy down there,” Homer said. “On any one day, I would be in contact with . . . four different agencies and three different Cabinet departments. It would be difficult to expect that number of agencies to seamlessly coordinate a family reunification effort.”
Many of the separated children were sent to government shelters throughout the country, ending up in Chicago, Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere, while their parents remained in detention centers at the border. So in order to comply with the court order, attorneys and advocates said, children are being brought to the detention center where their parents are and reunited in the parking lot.
“Buses of children roll up,” Homer said. Then, he continued, “families are being bused immediately to local organizations and charities.”
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has helped about 400 people in several shelters since July 13, a spokeswoman said. A spokeswoman for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service said her group, which was coordinating efforts in Arizona and New Mexico, was preparing to receive about 300 families. Some families will remain in one of three large family detention facilities, where the government can hold them for 20 days.