After the Department of Justice implemented the so-called “zero-tolerance policy” on May 4 of this year, the DHS began referring all people crossing the border illegally to the DOJ for criminal prosecution. This meant parents and other individuals over the age of 18 would typically be held in the custody of DOJ’s U.S. Marshals Service or the DHS, while their newly-designated “unaccompanied” children would be transferred to the custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The policy was implemented in response to a report that there had been a 203 percent increase in unauthorized border crossings in the past year. The majority of people arriving at the U.S. border had fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, according to the UN.
“The number of separated families continued to increase in the spring and early summer of 2018...DHS’s facilitation of the zero-tolerance policy, specifically its referral for prosecution of adult members of arriving family units, resulted in large-scale family separation,” the report said.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order aimed at ending family separation on June 20. It instructs the DOJ to keep families together while the parents’ criminal entry or immigration case is pending, and to construct or provide facilities for the detained families. Prosecutions under the zero-tolerance policy will not end, but the DHS agreed to suspend criminal referrals of families until it has the capacity to detain families together.
A U.S. District Court issued an injunction June 26 that required that separated families be reunited. The order applied to “all adult parents who enter the U.S. at or between official ports of entry, have been or are detained in immigration custody, and have a minor child who was or will be separated from them and detained in DHS or ORR custody, absent a determination that the parent is unfit.”
HHS contacted USCCB Migration and Refugee Services and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service July 2 asking for help providing social services to the reunified families. The report notes that at first “it seemed unclear which agency was in charge of deciding how and where the family reunifications would occur.”
By July 9, however, both agencies were informed that the first phase of reunifications would take place at 15 sites across the US, including New York, San Antonio, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Initial services available included immediate shelter, a hot meal, change of clothes, shower, and assistance with making travel arrangements from the designated family reunification site to the reunified family’s intended destination in the United States,” the report said.
“LIRS and USCCB/ MRS have also committed to providing social services and case management to these families for up to three months in their final destination cities.”
The combined efforts of the two agencies served just 18 families in this phase of the reunification. The report notes that the families were often dropped off at the centers late in the evening, after business hours, making it difficult for the centers to secure sufficient staff capacity.
“USCCB/MRS and LIRS surmise that some of the families reunified did not seek services due to confusion or uncertainty over what services were being offered and whether the provision of services required additional engagement with law enforcement,” the report said.
However, Phase 2 of the reunification effort, which began July 13, saw the two agencies, assisted by dozens of local Catholic Charities offices and various Lutheran affiliates, offer the same services to 1,112 families in detention centers in Texas and Arizona.
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USCCB/MRS and LIRS highlighted the need for ongoing support for the reunited families as many children exhibited symptoms of trauma, including separation anxiety, following their separation from their parents.
“Given the trauma that children have experienced, extended post-release services for children provided by the government and implemented by child welfare experts would help mitigate some of the difficulties that families are encountering in integrating into their final destination cities and also complying with their immigration proceedings,” the agencies recommended.
The agencies also recommended that the government do more to track and monitor family separations, release families during agreed-upon business hours, and rescind the zero-tolerance immigration policy.