It looks like most Central American migrant families entering the US have no idea that their children could be taken from them

  • Most immigrants coming to the US seemingly have no idea that their children could be separated from them on arrival.
  • Families who arrived together were almost never prosecuted before the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration crackdown.
  • In some cases, parents end up being quickly deported to their home countries while children remain in shelters in the US.

The Trump administration has described the “zero-tolerance” policy of separating families who arrive at the border together as a deterrent to prevent people from attempting to either seek asylum or immigrate illegally from Central America.

But lawyers, advocates, and families who have been separated say that most who arrive at the US border have no idea their children could be taken from them.

Before the “zero-tolerance” policy went into effect in April, it was very rare for families who arrived at the border together to be prosecuted at all, especially if they were applying for asylum, public defenders told The Washington Post. This was especially true for first-time border crossers.

But with the Trump administration’s recent crackdown on illegal immigration, the court system in border areas is becoming overwhelmed and backlogged with the new addition of parents being charged with illegal entry in droves. A public defender in McAllen, Texas told The Post that number of illegal entry cases in McAllen has now soared to 1,000 per week.

While parents make the choice to either plead guilty to the crime and face deportation, or plead not guilty and go to trial, their children are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to be processed. They will then either be transferred to a shelter or be placed with a relative who lives in the US.

Because the zero-tolerance policy is so new, most migrants coming across the border are unaware of it, and are completely blindsided when their children are taken away from them.

In an interview with Texas Monthly, Anne Chandler of the non-profit Tahirih Justice Center, which aids immigrant women and children, spoke to the confusion and chaos that occurs when families are separated.

“These kids and parents had no idea,” Chandler said. “None of the parents I talked to were expecting to be separated as they faced the process of asking for asylum.”

Photojournalist John Moore, who captured the now-famous photo of a toddler crying as her mother was searched and detained, recounted in an interview, “I could see on their faces that they had no idea what was about to happen.”

A complex process for reuniting parent and child

When parents have their children taken into separate custody, they often receive little to no information about their whereabouts or when they will be reunited. Parents report being told their children are being taken away for questioning or to be bathed, only to never see them again.

Parents receive a flyer with numbers to call to locate their children upon being put in custody, but many parents do not have access to phones or money to pay to make the phone calls.

On the other side, staff in shelters housing unaccompanied minors often struggle to locate the parents of the children. Many children are too young to know their parent’s full legal name or their date of birth, or too young to even speak, according to Chandler.

Zero tolerance flowchart family separation graphic what happens when families get separated at the border immigrationShayanne Gal/Business Insider

One woman from Honduras who was separated from her son upon crossing the border said in an interview with The New Yorker that border agents told her her son would be returned to her after she spent a few days in jail. She has been separated from him for six weeks as she awaits deportation, hoping her son can be sent back to Honduras with her.

A story from Miriam Jordan of The New York Times illustrates the complex maze of the immigration system through the story of a Guatemalan woman who tried to immigrate to the US with her 12-year-old son. She was deported back to Guatemala, while her son still remains in a shelter for unaccompanied minors.

When parents and children are separated, they go into two separate legal processes with different procedures and rights afforded to them.

Legal experts who spoke to The Times said that most adults charged with illegal entry end up pleading guilty and go into an “expedited removal” deportation process with the hope of being reunited sooner with their children.

Children, however, are automatically entitled to a full hearing before an immigration judge, a process that takes much longer. This results in situations in which parents are deported while children remain in limbo in the US with no clear end in sight.

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