The lack of action has created an additional burden for groups that provide legal and social services to immigrants, flooding non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with cases.
“We would prefer the government to not separate families,” said Megan McKenna, from Kids in Need of Defense (Kind) which offers legal services to unaccompanied children. “But if that has to be the policy then they need to ensure there is a clear protocol that ensures the constant communication between the child and the parent. It’s the only humane thing to do. It’s incredible it’s not happening already.”
Connecting families presents an enormous challenge because once they are detained at the border, children and parents enter two separate systems: for parents, the US Department of Homeland Security and criminal prosecution; meanwhile, children are classified as an “unaccompanied alien child” and transferred to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“We are dealing with several agencies all trying to coordinate in a disastrous way,” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which provides legal counsel to immigrant families.
Some parents have struggled to find their children, some of whom are being flown to shelters around the country. With no clear process in place, it’s possible some families will never be reunited.
“Permanent separation. It happens,” John Sandweg, who ran the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency under Obama between 2013 and 2014, told NBC News.
Although both parents and children are allocated A-numbers – “alien” identifiers – and case files, no government body aggregates and tracks them as a family unit. A separated child is treated by the system in exactly the same way as a child who had crossed the border without their parents.