The new Trump administration policy that automatically separates families at the US’s southern border has likely resulted in thousands of children, some as young as a year old, being taken from the parents.
Over 40,000 people were apprehended at the US’s southwest border in May, including more than 9,400 families, and Customs and Border Protection has been ordered to separate all parents crossing between legal ports of entry from their kids. The US government is running out of room to house them all, and the government may build a “tent city” that shelters from 1,000 to 5,000 kids near El Paso, Texas.
Breastfeeding babies are reportedly being taken from their mothers; others are reportedly being taken under false pretenses, as authorities tell parents they are just going to give them a bath). Nearly 1,500 immigrant boys are locked indoors in a former Walmart in Texas, for 22 hours a day.
The situation is sparking a horrified backlash across the US, including from many religious groups. One huge unanswered question remains: How will all of these children ever be reunited with their parents? The process is dysfunctional, immigration attorneys say, and is being overwhelmed by the huge uptick in kids.
According to one Texas-based immigrant advocacy group, some parents have not been able to get their children back even after being deported.
If you’re one of those many parents seeking your child, the first thing US authorities will give you is a toll-free, automated number, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson told Quartz.
ICE directs parents in its custody who are searching their kids to its Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) for assistance. ICE this week increased the hours that the line offers “live, trained” operators, from 8:00am to 4:00pm to 8:00am to 8:00pm, eastern time. (Immigration lawyers, family, and friends usually use Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s online detainee locator to find people in detention, but it doesn’t handle minors.)
ICE also told Quartz it “is committed to connecting family members as quickly as possible after separation so that parents know the location of their children and have regular communication with them.”
After choosing English or Spanish, and being notified all their information is being recorded (including their number via caller ID) callers to DRIL are greeted with an automated message that says “If you are in ICE custody, please press one. All other callers, press two.” There are “longer than normal wait times,” a female voice says, due to heavy call volume.
When Quartz called, a live operator answered after over 30 minutes on hold. She had bad news: “We don’t have information here on minors,” she said. She said that the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORRs) national call center was actually handling calls from immigrant parents trying to find their kids.
Was the toll-free number overwhelmed with calls? “Yes and no,” the operator said, it depends on the day. “It is mostly parents calling for their minors,” she said, despite the fact that the call center doesn’t have any information about them.
The ORR call center is also partially automated. “If you are calling about a person traveling to the US who is 18 or older, press one” the ORR’s automated message said. The wait for during an afternoon last week was about 9 minutes.
“We have people here who speak every language,” an operator said, and if a caller can give them a minor’s name, they can start trying to locate the child. How long the process takes depends on the case, she said. She referred further questions to the ORR’s press office.
Asked how the huge influx of parents and children were finding each other, the ORR sent a list of regulations, including that unaccompanied children in the ORR’s care “are allowed to call both family members and sponsors living in the United States and abroad.” The ORR did not immediately respond to a question about how children who are too young to operate a phone or learn phone numbers communicate with their parents. (As Quartz has previously written, the US government is required to help locate relatives or other potential caretakers who can eventually take custody.)
ORR has been responsible for more than 250,000 unaccompanied children since 2008, the press office said. However, this is the first time that the US government has created such a wave of unaccompanied children, by actively separating them from parents they arrived with. ORR didn’t respond to multiple inquiries about how its call line was dealing with the uptick in separated children, how long the reunification process takes, or requests for an interview with officials.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the ORR, “has jurisdiction over the kids being held in shelters, but it seems they are losing track of the kids placed with families or foster care,” Mana Yegani, an immigration lawyer in Texas, told Quartz. It is “very hard to know where a kid was placed and with whom.”