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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US-born children, too, were separated from parents at the border

Youths are dropped off at the Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, July 4, 2019. A government task force is tracking the fates of U.S. citizen children taken from migrant parents during the Trump administration. Some have spent years in foster care.

By Miriam Jordan

The Trump administration intentionally separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the southern border in the spring of 2018, an aggressive attempt to discourage family crossings that caused lasting trauma and drew widespread condemnation.

What is only now becoming clear, however, is that a significant number of children who are U.S. citizens were also removed from their parents under the so-called zero tolerance policy, in which migrant parents were criminally prosecuted and jailed for crossing the border without authorization.

Hundreds, and possibly as many as 1,000, children born to immigrant parents in the United States were removed from them at the border, according to lawyers and immigrant advocates who are working with the government to find the families.

In many cases, the U.S.-born children were placed into foster care for lengthy periods, and some have yet to be reunited with their parents, lost in the system nearly five years after the separations took place.

“We don’t even know where these parents are today, and whether or not they know where their children are,” said Paige Chan, executive director of the nonprofit Together and Free, who has been working with a federal task force charged with tracking the whereabouts of separated families. “The U.S. government is only beginning to account for the number of U.S. citizens put through this unimaginable trauma.”

Some 5,500 foreign-born children were already known to have been separated from their parents under the policy. The separations usually lasted for a matter of weeks, but in some cases they lasted years.

The revelations represent the first confirmation that U.S.-born children traveling with migrant parents were also subjected to the separation policy, which became official along the entire border in April 2018 after it was piloted in El Paso, Texas, the previous year.

As U.S. citizens, the children did not necessarily have any additional rights that would have prevented them from being taken from parents who were jailed, legal analysts said. In fact, it may have put them at a disadvantage: Their status as citizens automatically placed them under the oversight of state child welfare authorities, complicating efforts to keep track of them and reconnect them with parents.

While foreign-born children were transferred to shelters operated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they were entered into federal databases and eventually allowed to speak with their parents by telephone, there was no such system for children dispatched to state foster care systems. State family courts, using varied sets of criteria, were left to decide independently how to handle the cases.

The situation became even more difficult when parents were deported.

“Theoretically, a state dependency court would determine whether it is in a child’s best interests to be reunited with a parent, even if the parent has been removed or is facing imminent removal,” said Carlos Holguin, a lawyer who has represented thousands of migrant children in federal custody.

If a judge decided against returning a child to a migrant parent and no U.S. relative was available, the child might be placed in foster care until he or she reached the age of 18, Holguin said.

Most of the children involved were born in the United States to immigrant parents who then went back to their home countries, only to return amid a worsening economy and escalating gang violence in Central America and Mexico.

The parents of U.S. citizens are not automatically allowed to remain in the United States, although such children after turning 21 can sponsor the parent for a green card.

Because official records are scattered and incomplete, it will take months for the government to review additional files to identify separated parents and children and then try to determine their whereabouts in the United States or abroad, said several immigrant advocates who have been working with the interagency task force, led by the Department of Homeland Security, to track the cases.

Angelo Fernandez, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed that an unknown number of U.S. citizen children had been caught up in the border separations and said the task force was “combing through records” to identify them.

Chan said that her organization was aware of at least 226 American children who had been sent to the child protective services agency in San Diego County, California. Records for separated children delivered to foster care in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas do not exist, she said.

Children of a variety of ages and nationalities were caught up in the family separation policy, hundreds of whom were younger than 5 years old. The Trump administration said at the time that the policy was an attempt to deter the thousands of parents who officials said were putting their children in danger by taking them on perilous journeys to the border.

Removing children from parents who are being jailed is standard practice, the officials said. Children are commonly removed from U.S. citizen parents in other cases, for instance when women give birth while incarcerated, or where there has been parental abuse or neglect.

Still, images and audio of traumatized children weeping after being forcibly torn from their migrant parents caused domestic and global outrage, and the policy was rescinded.

A federal judge in California ordered the government in June 2018 to reunite separated parents and children, in response to a class-action lawsuit against the separation policy that was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Federal authorities facilitated reunions for parents and children who were still in custody. But many of the parents had been deported.

About 900 deported parents and siblings have since been brought back to the United States and have been allowed to remain in the country with a temporary legal status until a long-term settlement is reached.

The reunited families have been eligible for government-funded mental health services, and the ACLU is arguing that the families should be offered a path to permanent status in the United States to compensate for the damage inflicted by the separations.

Lee Gelernt, who is leading the court case for the civil rights organization, said in court last month that discussions with the government were “moving very rapidly,” suggesting that a settlement may be imminent.

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