US authorities say they have a well-co-ordinated plan to reunite the children of illegal immigrants with their parents, but not everyone is convinced.
The US government said it still had 2,053 children in its custody who were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, and set out its most detailed plans yet on how it would reunite families.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said late on Saturday it had a "well co-ordinated" process in place – in the face of criticism from lawyers for parents and children who have said they have seen little evidence of an organised system.
A total of 522 children had already been reunited with parents, the agency added in a factsheet published three days after Trump ended his policy of separating families on the US-Mexico border, after images of youngsters in cages triggered outrage at home and abroad.
A fact sheet on "zero-tolerance prosecution and family reunification" released on Saturday night by the DHS also says a parent must request that their child be deported with them. In the past, the agency says, many parents have elected to be deported without their children. That may be a reflection of violence or persecution they face in their home countries.
"The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families," the DHS said. In the past, the agency says, many parents have elected to be deported without their children.
As part of the effort, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have posted notices in all its facilities advising detained parents who are trying to find or communicate with their children to call a hotline staffed from 8am to 8pm, Monday through Friday.
A parent or guardian trying to determine if a child is in the custody of DHS should contact the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center at 1-800-203-7001, or via email information@ORRNCC.com. Information will be collected and sent to DHS-funded facility where the minor is located.
The fact sheet doesn't state how long it might take to reunite families. The Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Texas has been set up as the staging ground for the families to be reunited prior to deportation.
The new details came after more than two months of confusion how detained migrant parents, who are shuttled from facility to facility run by different government agencies, would ever reunite with their children, who are sent to shelters and foster homes scattered across the country.
The fact sheet said the Trump administration has a process for how parents would be reunited with their children "for the purposes of removal," or deportation.
Deportation proceedings could take months to complete, and the fact sheet did not say whether parents and children would be reunited in the intervening time. DHS officials did not immediately respond to questions about the process explained in the fact sheet.
The Port Isabel detention centre in Texas would serve as "the primary family reunification and removal center" for adults in ICE custody, the statement said.
Detentions at Port Isabel
Many of the parents are planning to claim asylum, lawyers and advocates who have spoken with them said. The fact sheet did not say how reunifications would be handled in those cases.
The fact sheet said children were given the chance to speak with a "vetted parent, guardian or relative" within 24 hours of arriving at a facility run by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – the agency that has custody of the children.
Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, said she and two other lawyers met about 70 detained Central American migrants at Port Isabel on Friday and Saturday. All but one had been separated from their children, she added in an interview before the fact sheet was published.
Several of the migrants had been given a number to call to try to locate their children, but found their calls wouldn’t go through or no one picked up, she said. If they did manage to get someone on the line, they were often told they would get a call back – useless to them while in a detention centre.
"When they do get a phone call, it's a one-to-two minute phone call and the kids frequently don’t know where they are," she said. "Some kids know, 'OK I'm in Michigan,' but they don't know any more than that."
Detention is no place for children
More than 2,300 children were taken from their parents in recent weeks under a "zero tolerance" policy in which people entering the US illegally face prosecution. Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday to stop the separation of families, but Democrats say they haven't seen a coherent system for reuniting those already separated.
In all, about 9,000 immigrants travelling in family groups have been caught on the border in each of the last three months, according to federal authorities.
Immigrant advocates contend detention is no place for children and insist there are other alternatives to ensure they and their parents attend immigration court hearings, such as ankle bracelets or community-based programmes. The federal court ruled several years ago that children must be released as quickly as possible from family detention.
"It is definitely not a solution under any circumstances," said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at the RAICES advocacy group in Texas. "At no point should a child be incarcerated, and children need to be with their parents."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement currently has three family detention facilities – a 100-bed centre opened in Pennsylvania in 2001 and two much larger facilities opened in Texas in 2014. Only the Pennsylvania facility can house men, and all of the detainees at the Texas centres are women with children.
In Dilley, Texas, a facility was built on a remote site that was once an old oil workers' encampment. It includes collections of cottages built around playgrounds. The other Texas centre, in Karnes City, is ringed by 15-foot fences and has security cameras monitoring movements. It also offers bilingual children's books in the library, classes, TVs and an artificial turf soccer field.
Inside the Karnes City centre, there are five or six beds to a room typically shared by a couple of families. Cinderblock walls are painted pastel colors, said Govindaiah, who added that the facilities are run by private prison operators, not humanitarian organisations, as is the case with shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children.