Seven-year old Darwin Mejia-Mejia is likely one of the first kids to be reunited with his parent, after being separated from his mom at the southwest border for more than a month.
The scene at Baltimore–Washington International Airport at around 3 a.m. on Friday was heart-wrenching. His mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, was seen holding him, as he’s wrapped in his blue and white fuzzy blanket, a personal belonging the mother kept close since the two had been apart. Between audible cries, you can hear her tell him, “Te amo.”
The family first arrived to the United States in May, seeking asylum at the border after fleeing violence in Guatemala. Shortly after, she was taken into custody while her son was placed in a Southwest Key detention center.
The reunification only occurred after the 38-year-old mother filed a federal lawsuit in district court on Tuesday, challenging the family separation process. Mejia-Mejia was released from custody in June, but wasn’t able to reunite with her son until lawyers with Libre by Nexus picked up her civil case and asylum petition as part of pro bono work. (This legal group is being investigated for fraud complaints, according to the Washington Post.)
But Darwin is just one of thousands of kids who federal officials have separated from their asylum-seeking parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy would involve criminally prosecuting asylum-seekers who cross the border between official ports of entry, thus separating them from their kids who could not be detained in jail.
The government has not given a total estimate of the kids who have been separated. It previously said that between May 5 and June 9, 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 adults at the border. A statement from Customs and Border Patrol Friday revealed that the number may be closer to 3,330. It’s not clear whether that number includes reports of families being separated before May.
The president signed an executive order on Wednesday aiming to halt family separation by instead detaining families together indefinitely. The executive order makes no mention of how to reunite families already separated.
The order has been met with confusion and chaos so far, as agencies scramble on how to respond and advocates try to figure out what it means for families left separated.
These kids have been taken and placed in shelters all across the United States, some as far as 2,000 miles away from their parents. The kids are sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where they’re reclassified as “unaccompanied alien children” and join hundreds of other kids who came to the United States without their parents at temporary shelters.
There doesn’t appear to be a process to reunite families, leaving many lawyers trying to sort through a bureaucratic system.
“They’re not even part of a system,” Jose Xavier Orochena, an immigration attorney representing three kids — ages ages 10, eight and five — being held in a New York foster care facility, told WNYC’s immigration reporter Beth Fertig. “I called immigration court here in New York and I asked when are the children scheduled to go in front of an immigration judge. They told me that their system reflects that the children are still in Arizona.”
Roughly 700 kids are in New York, residing in four ORR-contracted facilities. Eight are in MercyFirst, a residential treatment facility where another undocumented 15-year-old boy told lawyers he was medicated without his consent. New York hospitals have so far treated 12 separated children, who had depression, anxiety, asthma, constipation, and one was suicidal.
On Friday, CBP told CNN that approximately 500 kids have been reunited with their parents, meaning about 2,800 kids are still separated. It’s unclear whether these families are being held together in family detention or, if like Darwin, they’ve been reunited and released. (Darwin’s mom has not been criminally charged, according to her lawyers.)
Lawyers and advocates are convinced there is no formal procedure to unite families.
“It’s chaos,” said Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights for the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the Houston Chronicle. “Everything is just moving really fast … I am not convinced they have a plan for reunifying those they have separated.”
CBP told the Washington Post Thursday that it would temporarily freeze criminal referrals for asylum-seeking parents crossing the border illegally. CBP said it is waiting until Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody.” But the Justice Department insisted they would still continue the “zero tolerance” policy, even though U.S. attorneys can only prosecute migrants Border Patrol agents refer for criminal charges.
Like the Justice Department, HHS appears to be continuing business as usual.
“Our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors in HHS/ORR funded facilities and reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program,” said Brian Marriott, an HHS official said Thursday. “Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs, and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody.”
ThinkProgress reached out to HHS for further comment but did not hear back.
A system doesn’t exist to reunite families because ORR was never created to do that, said Ur Jaddou, a former chief counsel to ICE who now leads the watchdog project DHS Watch. ORR is suppose to care for unaccompanied minors, meaning kids who came without a legal guardian, not kids who federal officials rendered unaccompanied, she said.
Unaccompanied minors are usually placed with sponsors, who are more often than not relatives. But recently, the Trump administration has made it harder for immigrant families to become sponsors.
“Kids who are reunited… I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s because they are mostly due to the fact that they have strong legal advocates,” said Jaddou.