During the past two months, the U.S. government has transferred approximately 100 asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Central America’s violent northern triangle region to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Aurora. Now, with one judge-imposed reunification deadline having already passed and another approaching next week, the tenuous state of the future of these individuals, who have been separated from their children, has grown more dire and traumatic.
“I would say it’s actually getting worse,” said Laura Lunn, managing attorney for the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network’s detention program, which has represented and helped find counsel for many of the asylum seekers who have been moved to Colorado. “Everyone just wants to get out of there as quickly as they can to be with their children, and no one has any idea of when that might be.”
This difficult situation arose at the beginning of May when the Department of Homeland security began separating children from their parents at the southern U.S. border. The families had arrived at the border seeking asylum; the government detained the families and separated the children from their parents in accordance with what had been a new “zero-tolerance” immigration strategy executed by the Trump administration.
Official estimates suggested the government had separated nearly 3,000 children from their parents before widespread uproar led the president to sign a June 20 executive order ending the separation policy. The president’s new order directed the government to detain asylum-seeking families together, instead of separating them.
For many, questions then turned to when and how the government would reunite the thousands of families who’d already been separated, including the approximately 100 individuals who’d been transported from the southern border to the Aurora ICE facility. (Parents and kids detained at the border these past two months have been sent to various holding facilities across the country). “It took about a month and a half for a lot of people to learn even where their children are being detained,” Lunn said.
On Wednesday June 27, a U.S. District Court judge in California addressed the question of reunification, issuing an order that gave the government 14 days to reunite children younger than 5 with their parents, and 30 days to reunite everyone else. The first deadline passed last week; as of Thursday July 12, according to multiple reports, the Department of Health and Human Services said it had reunited 57 of 103 children under 5. The agency stated court guidelines precluded the other 46 kids from being eligible for reunification.
Concerned about the progress being made toward bringing families back together, Lunn said she spoke last week with a deportation officer who didn’t seem to be aware of the judge’s order. “ICE is not affirmatively assisting anyone with the reunification process that we have seen,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a long drawn-out battle over what this litigation means and how it’s playing out.”
Lunn said the sense of desperation inside the facility is palpable. She said many detainees are now also experiencing a secondary effect of separation from those they met and banded with during the past several weeks. “We’re now getting to the phase where people have been together throughout this process and have found strength and are now being separated themselves when one person will be released on bond,” Lunn said. “It’s so painful [for them] to see others getting out.”
The children being held across the country, Lunn said, are also struggling. “The amount of trauma is significant,” she said. “These children are not themselves; when they call, they are crying and they only respond to questions with one-word answers. On top of that, kids are blaming themselves — they think they’ve done something wrong — or are blaming their mothers and fathers and are asking ‘what did you do that created this situation?’ No one can really predict how lasting this trauma is going to be for these families.”
A significant language barrier has been another impediment. The majority of the asylum seekers in Aurora traveled to the U.S. from remote areas in Guatemala; many of them speak obscure indigenous languages with varying dialects, and only understand limited Spanish. Finding translators has been a challenge. “I’m hearing even the asylum office is struggling to find interpreters,” Lunn said.
Lunn noted one of the bright spots of the past few months has been the outpouring of support from attorneys willing to lend a hand through pro bono work, many from local firms that specialize in aspects of the law that have nothing to do with immigration. Two are Karam Saab and Matt Crookston, attorneys with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. “We primarily do patent work,” Saab said. “That’s basically the exact opposite of any family law; it’s very dry and very technical.”
But both Saab and Crookston said they were moved to act by the thought of children being taken from their parents. “No matter what side of the political divide you’re on, that’s completely wrong.” Crookston added: “I’m a father of six children; I’ve been traveling with them in other countries. What struck me is how scary it must be. It’s a very sad situation.”
Several weeks ago, Saab and Crookston represented a Guatemalan woman at a bail hearing and were able to help secure her release on bond, an important step as she now stays with extended family in Missouri and waits for an asylum hearing. Meanwhile, she’s also still waiting to be reunited with her daughter, who was transported from the border to another facility in New York, two time zones away. Karam said she intends to hire an immigration attorney in Missouri to help with her asylum case. “Even if you don’t see a courtroom very often, it’s an opportunity where just having a basic legal education and being an organized person, you can really make a difference for a human being.”
Regardless of what happens with this week’s deadline, Lunn noted that family separation has been and will remain a constant problem. “The system is broken; this is not how we should be treating people — no one should be separated from their family,” Lunn said. “Obviously these family members came together and were separated by the government forcibly, but any time someone is in detention they are no longer with their family members.”