To meet the deadline, attorneys say the administration is carrying out parent-child reunifications in parking lots of detention centers, and immigrants are being moved late at night to other detention centers or dropped at shelters or centers run by nonprofits, often without lawyers being notified.
Attorneys say that amid this chaos, some parents are not being fully informed of their rights or are choosing the shortest path toward being reunited with their children, even if that means giving up on a chance to stay in the U.S. Attorneys say they've spoken to some mothers who stopped pursuing their asylum cases after being told that continuing to fight would keep them in detention and separated from their children — potentially for months.
Others have unknowingly signed forms saying they agreed to be deported rather than staying and pursuing an asylum claim because the forms were not in their language or they were not literate in English or Spanish, attorneys who are working with detained migrants said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. And migrant families who are released are not always clearly told the next steps in their immigration case, lawyers said.
“These moments of reunification and release are incredibly chaotic, often happening in the middle of the night, and we want to make sure people understand what their obligations are,” said Royce Murray, policy director of the nonprofit American Immigration Council. “We want to be sure they are not being set up to fail."
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the reunification process and what migrant families are being told.
Migrant parents under pressure
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Calderon was nervous when she couldn’t find Mena. Beyond being worried about Mena’s mental state, she feared that Mena might agree to be deported if she thought that would help to reunite her with her 5-year-old daughter, who was in a foster home.
“On more than two occasions an ICE officer has pressured her and said, ‘Don’t you want to see your daughter?'” Calderon said. Mena, originally from Honduras, left home to escape violence, Calderon said. She is still detained and is fighting to stay in the U.S. now that she's been reunited with her daughter.
Other parents are also feeling pressure to agree to deportation — while some may not be aware of their options if they want to stay, said Shalyn Fluharty, managing attorney for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which represents mothers and children detained at the South Texas Residential Family Center, an immigration detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
Some of the mothers have gone through the first phase of the asylum process while in detention and separated from their children and were given a “negative” finding, meaning the asylum officer did not think the migrant had a credible fear of persecution or death if returned to her country. At that point, a migrant can ask an immigration judge to review the finding and potentially reject it, but few migrants are making that request, Fluharty said.
“Many of them decided to not see an immigration judge because they misunderstood that if they continued to proceed in fighting their case, they might not have the ability to see their child ever again,” she said.
No 'rhyme or reason on who gets released'
Ruby Powers, a Houston immigration attorney with Powers Law Group providing pro bono legal help to separated migrant parents, said the chaos has her in constant triage mode.
She and other attorneys said they’ve been unable to discern the government’s rationale in deciding which families are released and which are sent to detention centers after the parents and children are reunited.