By now we’ve heard about the roughly 2,600 migrant children who were separated from their parents at the border and are slowly being reunited. But there are other children who weren’t included in that count, because they’d already been released from government custody by the time a judge ordered reunification. Some of those children are still separated from their parents.
In some ways, Clara’s story is like so many others. She fled Guatemala with her eleven-year-old daughter, a shy, studious kid who wants to be either a ballerina or an English teacher. Clara says local gang members were threatening her daughter’s life. They got to the U.S., Clara was detained, and her daughter was taken away. It took several weeks to track her down, at a shelter in Chicago.
But here’s the critical difference. Clara’s daughter was released from that shelter fairly quickly. By the time a judge ordered the government to reunify families, she was already living with her uncle and aunt, Clara’s brother and sister-in-law.
Clara speaks on an echoey phone line from a West Texas detention center. We’re using a pseudonym, to protect her identity. There were other moms in that detention center. But after the court injunction, they started to get out. Clara says she asked an official why she wasn’t being reunified with her child.
“He told me your daughter has already been reunified with a relative,” Clara says.
Linda Rivas is an immigration attorney in El Paso, who’s representing Clara and three other parents in similar positions.
“The government is alleging that a reunification has already taken place,” she says. “We’re saying that cannot be true. We have not restored a parent and child together.”
When the court order came down in late June, about 2,600 children were in government custody. Most with ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But there were also kids like Clara’s daughter, who’d already been released to sponsors.
“The government has taken the position that children who were released from ORR custody before the injunction was issued are not part of the case and not entitled to reunify with their families,” says Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU, which sued the government over family separation.
It’s not clear how many children fall into this category. The government hasn’t released those numbers. The Department of Health and Human Services declined an interview request.
Whatever the number, Gelernt says these children have the right to be reunified with their parents.
“We don’t think there should be an artificial deadline when a child is entitled to reunification,” says Gelernt.
And he has another concern.
“We believe some families signed away their children to live with sponsors not understanding that they didn’t have to do that, and that they had a right to reunify with their child,” Gelernt says. “So we are very concerned there may be parents who gave away their children without fully understanding that there was a court case ongoing that could result in them being reunified with their children.”
Cynthia Canales is an immigration attorney in El Paso. She says she’s representing one mother who did exactly that. Her daughter was desperate to get out of a government shelter, and she had no idea there was a court case in the works. So she signed her child over to a relative. This was before Canales got involved with the case.
“At the time she made what she thought was the best decision,” Canales says. “The reality is had she known that they were gonna start reuniting she probably would have chosen to be reunited.”
Lee Gelernt with the ACLU wants to make something clear. Even if the government reverses course and decides these parents are eligible for reunification, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get released from detention. The government could release them. Or it could give them a choice: to reunify with their children in family detention or have their children stay with sponsors.
Still, Gelernt says it’s important for parents to have that choice.
“In many cases the child does not know the sponsor,” Gelernt says. “There is very little connection to the sponsor. And so if the parent wants the child back, they need to be given the child back.”
Gelernt says the ACLU may bring some of these issues to court. But for now parents like Clara just have to wait in detention.
Clara says she doesn’t talk to her daughter very often.
“I can only ask how she is doing because she starts to cry immediately and she can’t talk anymore,” Clara says.
At that point, Clara’s sister-in-law usually gets on the line. She says she and her husband are giving the girl lots of affection, and she’s doing well in school. But she’s sad and doesn’t fully understand why her mom can’t be there.
When they speak, Clara’s sister-in-law pleads: your daughter needs you.