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Migrant families still being separated at the border, report from Texas group says

The report comes roughly eight months since the government formally ended the policy.
Image: A family of migrants walk on the beach near the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 16, 2019.
A family of migrants walk on the beach near the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 16, 2019.Guillermo Arias / AFP - Getty Images file

Migrant families are still being separated by the Trump administration, sometimes over "uncorroborated allegations" of crimes, according to a report published Thursday by a Texas civil rights group.

"Family separations are still very much happening in the southern border, they’re still being torn apart by the U.S. government," Efrén Olivares, director of racial and economic justice at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told NBC News.

While the separations were not happening on the same scale as when the Trump administration announced the “zero tolerance” policy last spring, some occurred under troubling circumstances, Olivares said. The report, which looked at cases between June 22 and Dec. 17 in McAllen, Texas, comes roughly eight months after the government formally ended the policy.

The report said it found 38 cases of parents and legal guardians separated from their children.

One of those cases involved Mr. Perez-Domingo, an indigenous migrant father from Guatemala whose primary language is Mam, according to the report. Perez-Domingo was separated from his 2-year-old daughter in July after being accused by Customs and Border Protection of not being the girl’s biological father and providing a fraudulent birth certificate, according to the report. He was not given an interpreter during his interview.

The civil rights group said it investigated the incident and discovered the birth certificate was authentic and a DNA test determined Perez-Domingo was the child’s father. They were reunited in August.

"The lack of assistance of translators, in combination with aggressive questioning by the CBP agent, resulted in severe discrimination and traumatic consequences for this indigenous family," the report says. It added that had the group "not interviewed this father early in the process, it is highly likely that Mr. Perez-Domingo would have been deported without his daughter, and his child unlawfully orphaned in the United States."

The report lists another migrant father, identified as Mr. A, whose 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son were taken from him over "uncorroborated allegations of gang affiliation." The civil rights group claimed that an investigation into the man’s background did not find evidence of known criminal convictions in the U.S. or in his home country of El Salvador or proof of any gang affiliation.

After the end of "zero tolerance," administration officials have said immigration authorities are separating families only if the adult is not the parent or legal guardian of the child, if the safety of the child is at risk or because of "serious criminal activity" by the adult.

Meanwhile, government officials said in a court document Wednesday that almost 250 separations of parents and children took place from June 27 to Jan. 31. In most cases, the families were separated on the basis of prosecution or alleged criminality or gang affiliation. The document is part of an ongoing court case ordering the reunification of separated families.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the Texas Civil Rights Project had "published a flawed report without asking for or including input" from the federal agency. It also claimed the civil rights group used flawed data including "all types of familial relationships without regard to the statutory definition" of an unaccompanied migrant child.

Based on that definition, Customs and Border Protection acknowledged a total of 38 family separations in McAllen.

The Texas Civil Rights Project said it screened an estimated 9,800 adult migrants who were prosecuted for illegal entry into the U.S. and 492 adults prosecuted for illegal reentry, most of whom were from Central America. The families were interviewed prior to their hearings at a federal courthouse in McAllen.

Of those cases, it found 272 instances of families being separated, among them 34 parent and child family separations, 107 cases of siblings being separated, 62 cases in which children were separated from aunts or uncles, and other cases involving separations from cousins, grandparents, legal guardians, stepparents or other caretakers. The youngest child was 8½ months old at the time she was separated from her mother.

Under the “zero tolerance” policy last spring and early summer, migrants were prosecuted for crossing the border illegally, a misdemeanor for the first offense. Parents then ended up in federal custody and their children were separated from them.

After a swell of criticism from both parties and growing protests across the country, President Donald Trump announced an end to the policy in June. Later that month, a federal judge also ordered that the government reunify many of the separated families.

The government had identified more than 2,700 children who were separated under the policy. But it’s estimated that many more may have been separated since the summer of 2017, according a report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

On Thursday afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union will argue in federal court that families separated before the June 2018 ruling should be covered under the reunification lawsuit.