The Department of Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Alex Azar told lawmakers on Tuesday that every parent has “access to know where their child is” after the Trump administration forcibly separated them at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of its zero tolerance policy.
But various lawyers who met with these parents over the weekend contested this claim, telling ThinkProgress that a majority of parents had “no idea” where their kids were and had not spoken to them once the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — an arm of HHS — took them into its custody.
The Trump administration has prosecuted thousands of asylum-seeking parents who came to the United States between official ports of entry. Many are fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse and have typically pleaded guilty to illegal (re)entry. As a result, they are sent to immigration jails run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) while their kids are sent to ORR facilities.
Last week, federal authorities stopped charging migrant parents with misdemeanors, but many families are still separated as a result of the months-old zero tolerance policy. As of June 26th, ORR said it had 2,047 separated minors in its facilitates — down six from last week. (It is unclear whether or not those six children were reunited with their parents.) Now, the Trump administration is giving these parents the choice to either keep fighting for asylum in the United States, while separated from their children, or waive their rights and return to the country they fled from together.
“There is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located,” said Azar during a Senate hearing Tuesday. “I sat on the ORR portal, with just basic key strokes and within seconds could find any child in our care for any parent available.” He added that ORR has case mangers and a toll free number to help parents locate their kids.
But while the health secretary claims he knows where these kids are, it doesn’t mean the parents do, as the bureaucratic system in place makes it challenging.
“My understanding is that DHS has to reach out to ORR to get the information,” said Eileen Blessinger, a Virginia-based immigration attorney who has met with dozens of migrant parents. “[DHS and HHS] are not sharing databases and not notifying ORR when they move a child.”
Blessinger is among several lawyers who recently visited Port Isabel Detention Center, a Texas facility that DHS designated as “the primary family reunification and removal center for adults.” Five lawyers interviewed roughly 200 parents there, many of whom were desperately searching for answers to make sure their kids were safe. Roughly a quarter of the parents they spoke with were able to reach their kids. Staff attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, Sophia Gregg, said all of the approximately 50 parents who spoke with her had “no idea where their child was located.”
“The 1-800 number doesn’t work,” Gregg said in a press call on Tuesday. “No one answers the phone. No one has gotten through.”
Instead of reaching out to parents, ORR has been reaching out to, for example, family friends, said Blessinger. She recalled one parent who didn’t want the family friend to take custody of her child. ORR usually prioritizes relatives when they place kids with sponsors, as ORR was intended to house migrant children who came to the United States without their parents, not the kids that the federal government eventually rendered unaccompanied by separating them from their parents.
Blessinger was able to speak with a couple of parents who spoke with their kids, after trying to reach them for weeks. One woman told Blessinger that when she finally heard from her seven-year-old son, he told her “why don’t you love me, why did you leave me?”
Azar told lawmakers that reunification between parents and children can only occur if parents finish immigration proceedings or if Congress permits kids to be detained indefinitely in jail-like facilities with their parents. But this isn’t the only option. The Trump administration recently ended an immigration program that kept families together, free of detention, as they awaited immigration court dates.
This post has been updated to reflect recent numbers of children in ORR custody.