HARLINGEN — While federal officials say they have a process in place for reunifying the thousands of undocumented immigrant parents and their children whose separations set off a humanitarian crisis along the Texas-Mexico border, a civil rights group says it's still unclear how they plan to reunite families who are seeking asylum.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement released Tuesday provided some details about plans for reuniting families so they “can be returned to their home countries together.” Neither that statement — nor an earlier one released Saturday — explicitly addressed the reunification process for thousands of children whose parents fled violence in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States.
“We’re concerned about that, so hopefully the government will provide specific answers to those questions,” said Natalia Cornelio, a director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, an advocacy group that has interviewed hundreds of undocumented immigrants separated from their children under President Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
A government fact sheet about reunifications only mentions a plan "to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal." While some parents agree to be deported with their children, Cornelio said, those seeking asylum go through a different, slower process as their asylum claim is evaluated — and the government plan doesn't specify a reunification process for them while their claim is pending.
Those separations set off a bipartisan backlash that eventually prompted Trump to repeal the policy last week through an executive order. The move did little to quell confusion and tension along the border. And it has been days since federal officials updated the number of reunifications that have happened.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok declined to respond to specific questions, pointing a reporter instead to statements about reunifying deportees.
It is not illegal to come to a United States port of entry and ask for asylum. Once they make that request, asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the U.S. while their requests weave through a process that can take anywhere from days to years.
But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled earlier this month that people fleeing gang or domestic violence alone no longer qualify for asylum. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents recently began waiting on international bridges on the Texas-Mexico border and deterring would-be asylum seekers from crossing the border by telling them there is no room for them to be processed on the U.S. side.
"When our ports of entry reach capacity, when their ability to manage all of their missions — counter-narcotics, national security, facilitation of lawful trade — is challenged by the time and the space to process people that are arriving without documents, from time to time we have to manage the queues and address that processing based on that capacity," said Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
That has left people sleeping on international bridges or crossing into the country illegally between the ports of entry.
It's unclear how many people apprehended during the “zero tolerance” policy — which has led to more than 2,500 children being separated from parents or guardians — have crossed into the country illegally because they were blocked at a port of entry. People detained for crossing between ports can still ask for asylum once they are in custody.
The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.
ICE designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos as the central location for reuniting and detaining families, but said in a statement Tuesday that no children would be housed there because it was only for those “going through the removal process.”
A group of mothers detained at the Port Isabel facility told lawmakers they had yet to receive court dates for immigration hearings — and in the meantime, they remain in a state of limbo, unsure of where their children being held are and unable to find out.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, said there is a “clear disconnect” between official messages promising family reunification coming out of Washington and the confusion she and other lawmakers witnessed at Port Isabel.
Meanwhile, parents who have been released from federal custody say they still don't know how or when they will be reunited with their children. The Texas Tribune reported this week that some asylum seekers separated from their children were told they would be reunited only if they agreed to be voluntarily deported.
Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who is representing a woman who fled violence in Guatemala with her 5-year-old child, said the woman was turned away at a border crossing, entered the country illegally without getting caught and immediately sought out a federal agent so she could ask for asylum.
“Although she crossed the river, she wasn’t looking to abscond,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Instead of being detained so her request could be processed, the client was arrested and separated from her child, Lincoln-Goldfinch said. Her client remains in a detention facility in Hutto, northeast of Austin, while her child has been released to a relative.
“That is a new horror on a new level that I have never experienced before as an immigration attorney,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Federal agents earlier this week stood on a bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to a border station in Brownsville and refused to let asylum seekers through. A group of men from Cuba sat on the bridge, where they had been waiting days to make asylum claims.
A few feet away, Walter and Helen Vindel had just arrived with their four children. They left their home country of Honduras in January and slowly made their way through Mexico, stopping in small villages for days at a time to work odd jobs and save enough money for another leg of the trip.
The Vindels left home after they could no longer pay gang members, who had already killed some of their relatives, the “taxes” the violent groups charge for allegedly protecting families.
Vindel cried as she said the family just wants Americans to show compassion and understand they are not like the criminals they are fleeing.
“All we want is what’s best for our children,” she said. “We want them to have a future.”
When told of the chaotic immigration situation just a few yards away in America, they said they would remain on the bridge until border protection agents let them through. They said they would not cross illegally.
“In my mind, this is my only chance,” Walter Vindel.
Julian Aguilar and Claire Parker contributed to this report.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the first name of Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who was misidentified in an earlier version of this story and to clarify that the majority of separated immigrant families are asylum seekers.