President Donald Trump’s reversal of a policy separating migrant families at the Mexico border sparked confusion over how the new guidelines will play out and deep concern that the changes don’t go far enough, allowing children to still be held in detention even if they remain with their families.
“We are pleased that the president is calling a halt to his inhumane and heartless policy of separating parents from their children,” said Peter Schey, the lawyer in a lawsuit that resulted in a key agreement governing the treatment of migrant children in detention called the Flores settlement.
Despite the president’s order, Schey said he was concerned that several thousand children have already been separated from their parents “without the Trump administration having any effective procedures in place to reunite children with their parents, many of whom have already been deported.”
Trump said Wednesday he didn’t like seeing children being removed from their families, a recent practice that has sparked worldwide outrage. But he also said “zero tolerance” on illegal immigration continues, and children will be held with their parents while the adults are prosecuted.
It remains unclear what will happen with the more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border in recent weeks. Officials have said they are working to reunite families as soon as possible but have provided no clear answers on how that will happen.
“This is a stopgap measure,” said Gene Hamilton, counsel to the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Justice Department lawyers were planning to file a challenge to the Flores settlement, which requires the government to release children from custody and to their parents, adult relatives or other caretakers, in order of preference.
If those options are exhausted, authorities must find the “least restrictive” setting for a child who arrived without parents.
Justice Department lawyers will seek permission to allow for the detention of families until criminal and removal proceedings are completed.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said he was concerned about whether parents can track down their kids. “I am also deeply troubled to hear reports that the administration, in its haste to hold innocent children hostage in order to demand funds for a border wall, failed to plan appropriately to reunite these families following their separation,” the Democrat said.
Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, among the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., said: “While children will no longer be ripped from the arms of their parents for the sole purpose of deterring immigration, they will go to jail with their parents. Jail is never an appropriate place for a child.”