WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly 100 parents and kids packed the Senate Hart building Thursday, staging “Families Belong Together” sit-ins and meeting with lawmakers, hours before a court-mandated deadline for the government to reunite all migrant families they’ve separated.
A California federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite by Thursday the thousands of families it forcibly separated at the southwest border as part of its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy to deter migration into the United States. Of the 2,654 families, the government says it’s on track to reunite all 1,637 “eligible” parents and their kids over the age of five. The government already reunited 58 kids under the age of five. District Judge Dana Sabraw gave the government more time to reunite parents they’ve deported which could account for over 400.
Activists with the Families Belong Together coalition met bright and early at a church near the Hart building, where they later met with Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). The youngest activist at the protest was two-month-old Javier Kauffman, son of Jenn, who found stories about family separation “reprehensible” — including the media report of a Honduran mother whose daughter was taken from her while she was breastfeeding.
While there were some lighthearted moments during the hours-long action — for example, activists sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and played with Play-Doh in the Senate halls — the message was serious: don’t forget that families are still ripped apart. ThinkProgress spoke to various activists — some as young as 10 years old — who described the Trump administration’s actions on immigration as “cruel” and “deplorable.”
Fourteen-year-old Luna Baez marched to Capitol Hill with her three siblings because she knows firsthand what it’s like to be separated from her mother, Jeanette Vizguerra, who fled violence in Mexico City. Baez was separated from her mother on three different occasions, including a time where Vizguerra was detained at a Texas detention center for three-and-a-half months. Baez has been trying to get her U.S. visa for more than nine years.
“This system is broken and for this I come here today,” Vizguerra told ThinkProgress. “I need families to be reunified.”
Youth activists visited the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), where children presented Senate aides with drawings of their own families. Sen. Harris also visited the sit-in, where groups situated for hours. When ThinkProgress asked Harris what she intends to do if the administration doesn’t meet Thursday’s deadline, she said, “We are going to do exactly what we are doing now.”
“We are going to stand up, we are going to speak out, we are going to push for something in law to make sure that the reunifications happen as quickly as possible,” the senator added.
The government told Judge Sabraw on Tuesday that it is on track to reunite 1,600 families by midnight Thursday, but that it wouldn’t be able to reunite roughly 900 families, either because parents have been deported, have “criminal” backgrounds, or have waived reunification rights.
Many parents were coerced into waiving or unknowingly waived reunification rights, alleged the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a court filing on Wednesday. As many as 127 parents waived this right, according to a government court filing.
“Parents have signed forms they did not understand,” wrote the ACLU. “Some parents with limited or no literacy were not told what they were signing. Still others thought they had signed papers stating that they wanted reunification.”
“They have been pressured by ICE to sign paperwork that they did not understand.” Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council (AIC), told reporters on Thursday.
Many parents didn’t have an attorney present while signing deportation papers that waived their reunification rights, or were given false choices, she added, corroborating the ACLU’s findings.
“Without revisiting these cases and consulting with families, it’s hard to know if anyone knowingly signed a deportation order,” said Murray.
AIC spoke with roughly 150 detained parents, and can attest to the immense confusion on the ground and the trauma that families have endured. Murray added that as many as 50 separated families have been detained subsequent to reunification at the South Texas Family Residential Center.
Once families are reunited, the ACLU fears that they’ll be immediately deported without due process. Roughly 900 parents have final orders of removal. Families have the option of either leaving the United States with their child or having their child stay to fight their immigration case. ACLU is arguing in court that there should be a seven-day delay before families are deported.
With regard to families with parents who have already been deported, various advocacy groups say the administration isn’t prioritizing them for reunification. The court did not require the government to reunite these families by the end of Thursday.
The Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) launched a new initiative on Thursday, providing legal, social, and psychosocial services to separated parents in Central America. In a press call, KIND described one family’s experience, in which a seven-year-old has been pleading to return to their country of origin, but hasn’t been successful in doing so.