Two days after President Donald Trump ordered an end to the separation of families at the border, federal authorities Friday were still working on a plan to reunite an estimated 1,800 children with their parents and keep immigrant households together.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement posted a notice saying it is looking into creating 15,000 beds for use in detaining immigrant families. A day earlier, the Pentagon agreed to provide space for as many as 20,000 migrants on U.S. military bases.
“The problem is going to be now you have a family in detention for a long while, and of course, that again is going to raise some issues,” said Jama Ibrahim, an Atlanta immigration attorney with an office in Gainesville.
Ibrahim was already representing a number of unaccompanied minors following the influx of children crossing the border. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of minor, or unaccompanied alien children, crossing the border increased 90 percent between 2013 and 2014.
After immigration authorities apprehend them, the minors are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
“If the child has a relative or an adult who is willing to take on the responsibility of caring for them, then they would release the child to that person,” Ibrahim said.
According to the Administration for Children and Families, 75 unaccompanied alien children were released to sponsors in Hall County in fiscal year 2017.
In fiscal year 2014, that number was 116.
Prior to the Trump administration, Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso said he would request to file asylum claims or dependency action in juvenile court for those children.
If successful in juvenile court, Corso said a client would return to apply for a special juvenile immigrant visa.
“At that point, the government will usually say, ‘OK, we’re just going to terminate removal proceedings,’” he said.
Corso said the policies in place today are similar to former President Barack Obama’s administration except for the “zero tolerance” approach to immigration, which he believes has led to a lack of discretion and judgment when weighing these cases.
Ibrahim said there are clear issues “back in Central America that need to be resolved.”
“I thought maybe when Trump became the president with all of this rhetoric of zero tolerance and all of this, you would think people would stop coming. But they don’t. They haven’t stopped coming,” Ibrahim said.
Gangs with tremendous clout in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are causing families to flee, Ibrahim said.
“What we need is for some core group ... in Washington to get together and say, ‘look, here are the problems. We need to address (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). We need to address children and family separation, and we need to do it immediately.’ Why drag it on to the midterm elections? People don’t want that,” Corso said.
Some parents struggled to get in touch with youngsters being held in many cases hundreds of miles away, in places like New York and the Chicago area. Some said they didn’t even know where their children were.
Trump himself took a hard line on the crisis, accusing the Democrats of telling “phony stories of sadness and grief.”
"We cannot allow our country to be overrun by illegal immigrants,” the president tweeted.
More than 2,300 children were taken from their families at the border in recent weeks. A senior Trump administration official said that about 500 of them have been reunited since May.
Trump’s decision to stop separating families, announced Wednesday after a fierce international outcry, has led to confusion and uncertainty along the border.
Federal agencies are working to set up a centralized reunification process for all remaining children at a detention center in Texas, said the senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
An ICE official said it is unclear how families will be reunified.
“It’s a big question. There have not been a lot of answers,” Henry Lucero, a director of field operations, confessed at a forum in Weslaco, Texas.
In the meantime, federal authorities appear to be easing up on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults caught illegally entering the U.S., though the Justice Department denied there has been any change.
The federal public defender’s office for the region that covers El Paso to San Antonio said in an email that prosecutors will no longer charge parents with illegally entering the U.S. if they have children with them.
Outside the federal courthouse in McAllen, immigration attorney Efren Olivares said 67 people were charged Friday morning with illegal entry, but none were parents with children. He said it was the first time since May 24 that that happened in McAllen.
“It appears that this is a consequence of a change in policy by the government,” he said.
ICE has only three facilities nationwide — two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania — that can be used to detain immigrant families, and they have a combined 3,300 beds.
Finding space is not the only hurdle: Under a 1997 court settlement that the Trump administration is trying to overturn, children can be held with their parents in detention centers for no more than 20 days.
Zenen Jaimes Perez of the Texas Civil Rights Project said immigrant families are still awaiting details from the administration on how parents and children are to be reunited.
“It could take a couple of months, a couple of days … but we don’t have timelines,” Jaimes Perez said. “What we need to hear is what the administration says this process is going to look like, because we don’t know.”
The group has been interviewing migrants each morning at the McAllen courthouse and entering information into a database to help keep track of parents and children held in different facilities, sometimes scattered around the country.
Olivares said it is difficult for government agencies to reunite immigrant families once they are separated because the systems that process adults and those that handle youngsters often don’t communicate with each other.
Adults accused of immigration offenses are under the authority of the Homeland Security Department, while youngsters taken from their parents are overseen by Health and Human Services.
On Capitol Hill, Trump on Friday told fellow Republicans in Congress to “stop wasting their time” on immigration legislation until after the November elections. Stubborn differences between conservative and more moderate Republicans have stalled legislation on Capitol Hill.
The Associated Press and Times reporter Nick Watson contributed to this report.