About 20 percent of the 2,575 migrant children separated at the border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy have been reunited with their parents so far. The federal government released a plan over the weekend for returning separated migrant children to their families, but migrant parents are being offered voluntary deportation as a means of reuniting their families as well, CNN reports. Signing a voluntary departure order will effectively speed up their case, federal officials reportedly are telling detained parents.
A man from Honduras seeking asylum in the United States told The Texas Tribune that he signed such a form to avoid being sent home without his 6-year-old daughter. He told the publication that two federal officials said he’d be reunited with his daughter at the airport if he volunteered for deportation — but he now regrets signing away his hopes of a life in America.
“I was told I would not be deported without my daughter,” he told The Texas Tribune. “I signed it out of desperation… but the truth is I can’t go back to Honduras; I need help.”
The release from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) that outlines how the government will reunite families says parents can request that their child accompany them back to their home country if they're deported.
The only way for parents to regain custody of their child in the United States is to apply to be the child's sponsor after the parent is released from custody, according to HHS rules. The DHS and HHS release notes that parents and legal guardians are given preference when it comes to choosing a minor's sponsor.
It’s customary for immigrants being held in detention centers to be given the option of volunteering for deportation rather than waiting to see a U.S. judge, an administration official told CNN. However, CNN also reports that Henry Lucero, an enforcement and removal operations official for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said on Friday that "a majority" of parents choose to be deported without their children.
DHS and HHS also suggested that it’s common for parents to be deported without their children. “A parent who is ordered removed from the U.S. may request that his or her minor child accompany them,” the agencies wrote in the recent release. “It should be noted that in the past many parents have elected to be removed without their children.”
The release announced that 522 children in federal custody have been reunited with their parents, while 2,053 children who were separated from their families remain in detention centers.
ICE’s process for reunification outlined in the release is pretty vague. It says the agency implemented a system for the “on-going tracking” of family members as they move through the immigration system, designated specific detention centers for parents separated from their children, and coordinated with HHS to reunite children before their parents are deported.
Minors in government facilities are allowed to call family members, according to the release. But the Honduran man who signed orders for voluntary deportation told The Texas Tribune he's only spoken to his daughter once in the three weeks they've been separated. He claimed the 6-year-old is currently a "prisoner." The man reportedly turned himself and his daughter into Border Patrol officers after crossing the border on a raft, as is required of anyone seeking asylum.
“The kids aren't to blame for what's going on,” he said. “We only came because we can't live in our country. We are looking for somewhere to live where our children can have a better future. In our country we can't do it.”