President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that ended his administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. But while this policy change will prevent more children from being taken from parents, it offers nothing for the 2,000-plus kids already detained — and some experts said migrant children may never reunite with their parents.
One major reason for the potential long-term separation is that immigrant children are processed through a different agency than their parents. Once adult parents are arrested for crossing the border illegally, Trump's "zero tolerance" policy has meant they are now treated as criminals. And as Olivia Solon reported at The Guardian, the Department of Homeland Security takes over the cases of migrant adults.
Without their parents, the children suddenly fall under the category of "unaccompanied minors," which means they're shuffled off separately to the Department of Health and Human Services. And advocates for parents and children have reported that facilitating communication between these two separate systems can be a labyrinthine task.
According to The Guardian, there is simply no government tracking in place to keep tabs on where the children of detained migrants are sent, and vice versa. "Who knows when they’ll be reunified, if they are reunified," immigration attorney Carlos M. Garcia told The Daily Beast.
John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), painted a grim picture to NBC News, saying "Permanent separation. It happens." Beyond the administrative hurdles of navigating two separate systems — one tracking the children, the other for the parents — the courts move at a much faster clip for adult immigrants than for minors. As Julia Ainsley reports at NBC, an adult can be deported rather quickly. On the other hand, children's cases sometimes stretch on for years. Viewed as non-threatening by the government, child migrant cases are not a priority.
These kids will likely end up in foster care. If they spend several years in that system, they will eventually become wards of the state — and eligible for citizenship. In a blow of dark irony for those in favor of harsh immigration law enforcement, these migrant children could someday be recipients of de facto amnesty. "You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the U.S. that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted," Sandweg told NBC.
Wendy Young, an immigration expert and president of Kids in Need of Defense, echoes Sandweg. She told CNN, "It's just very difficult to find somebody, especially after the parent's been deported."
Many of the parents of detained children come from poor and isolated areas, where reliable phone lines can be difficult to secure. Young also told CNN, "These people are going back to the same dangerous circumstances they fled ... and they are targeted once they're back."
Another issue is the geographic distance put between parents and children. While adult detainees are usually held at facilities near the border, their children have been sent to locales as far away as New York and Michigan — including children as young as a three-month-old infant.
After touring a detention facility in Tournillo, Texas, Rep. Will Hurd told CNN he was not satisfied with the Trump administration's preparation to keep track of children separated from their parents. The Republican lawmaker described the lack of an adequate tracking system as "nuts," and said, "We're the United States of America. We shouldn't be using kids as a deterrent for border security."
While it's welcome news that children will not longer be forcibly separated from their parents at the border, the fate of kids already detained apart from their families does not seem to be a current priority for the president.