Juan and his 3-year-old daughter Gricelda were separated two months ago while crossing the border into the U.S. They were finally reunited on Tuesday, their lawyer Gianna Borroto told VICE News — but dozens of other families are still waiting for a day that may never come.
Gricelda is just one of the dozens of children under the age of 5 who were forcibly separated from their parents by the government — and one of the few to be returned. The Trump administration began reuniting some of the 102 young children with their parents on Tuesday, but issues attributed to DNA testing and locating families mean only 34 will be be reunited by a federal court’s end of day deadline.
Those 34 children met with their parents Tuesday behind closed doors in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities across the country, where their parents have spent weeks and even months alone. Officials said Tuesday the government is prepared reunite another 17 kids with their parents in ICE detention as soon as DNA tests and background checks are verified. After reunification, ICE will release the families to live in the U.S. as their immigration cases pend.
Juan and Gricelda, who only speaks the Guatemalan dialect of K’iche, arrived in the U.S. after crossing the Arizona border in May. Juan was transferred to three separate immigration detention centers before ending up in Chicago, where he was reunited with Gricelda. Though he asked for his daughter every day in custody, he wasn't able to get in contact with her until he called the Guatemalan consulate, whose staff located her. The two are headed to Texas next.
Their reunification occurred despite significant problems plaguing the process. Last week, the Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw for more time to reunify the families, a motion Sabraw denied. On Tuesday, Sabraw reiterated the importance of the deadlines.
“These are firm deadlines,” Sabraw said. “They’re not aspirational goals.”
“The court could not have been clearer that business as usual is not acceptable,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project said in a statement. “The Trump administration must get these children and parents reunited.”
But families will remain separated — some permanently — despite the court’s order.
Twelve children won’t be reunited by the Tuesday deadline because the government already deported their parents, and eight won’t be reunited in time because the government released their parents into the U.S. and is still screening them.
Fourteen of the children will not be reunited at all, because the adult they immigrated with is not their parent or because their parent has a serious criminal history or evidence of abuse. Thirteen children may be able to reunite with their parents in the future: 10 are in criminal custody, one has a contagious illness, one lives with someone who has an outstanding warrant for child sex abuse, and one child’s location is unknown — and might be a U.S. citizen, according to court records.
Four other children were reunified with family members before the Tuesday deadline, including two who were released to parents in the U.S., one to an adult sibling, and one to a parent who was being deported.
The family separations are a direct result of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which resulted in children being separated from their parents and placed in the custody of Health and Human Services, while their parents were criminally prosecuted and detained by the Department of Homeland Security. As many as 3,000 migrant children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border before the administration made moves to halt the policy. Judge Sabraw has since ordered that kids under five be reunited by July 10, and kids over 5 be reunited by July 26.
This is the first time DHS has systematically separated child migrants from their parents and detained them apart for months; normally, HHS houses unaccompanied minors, and conducts long background checks and home visits for family members before kids are released to them. The government is now struggling to determine which child belongs with which parent because they were not tracked together in the DHS or HHS system.
Gabriella Pezzo, Antonia Hylton, and Belle Cushing contributed reporting.
Cover image provided by Isabel S. Dieppa from National Immigrant Justice Center - A Heartland Alliance Program based out of Chicago.