Reunifying Parents And Children — How It Works On The Ground

Across the country, lawyers and advocates are working with U.S. government officials to reunite parents and children who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Over half of the children under the age of five were reunited this past week. Thousands more face a court-ordered deadline for reunification by the end of this month.

Taylor Levy is the legal coordinator for Annunciation House, a migrant shelter in El Paso, Texas. She and her team are trying to help about 50 parents reunite with their children.

Levy recently called a father named Josué to check in. He's trying to get his 16-year-old daughter back. But he told Levy there's a problem. After he was released from custody, Josué went to live with his brother-in-law.

"And his brother-in-law has papers and is legal and everything," Levy says. "So he thought he was going to be fine with all the paperwork with ORR."

ORR is the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal department that cares for the children in custody.

"But he didn't know that there's a couple other people living in the house as well who are undocumented and are just really scared about ICE picking them up," Levy said.

Due to a new policy, ORR collects information on everyone in a household and shares that information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"There's nothing we can do right now to get the child out unless something changes with the court order or he moves," Levy said.

It's just one example of challenges parents face as they try to reunite with their children.

Levy told Josué she'll look for other housing options.

Annunciation House has connected most parents like Josué with pro-bono attorneys. But Levy says the reunification process is so onerous, parents can use many advocates. So she has a team of volunteers.

Shalini Thomas is one of them. As Levy worked to find Josué housing, Thomas typed up notes from earlier in the week, when there was a deadline to reunite children under five with their parents before the court-ordered deadline.

She flipped through a handwritten log of all the calls between her team and one ORR shelter, as they worked to book a flight for a three-year-old.

"At 9 a.m. they said 'we don't know who has to pay,'" Thomas read. "At 2:20 we were told we have to pay. At 4:45 we paid."

She stopped to correct herself. "We did not pay, a very generous donor paid for the flight." Then at 9 p.m. they got a call that ORR was paying and booking a separate flight.

"The social workers at this particular shelter have been above and beyond amazing," Thomas said. "It is not their fault that we have 10 pages of case notes and were on the phone with them all day."

Thomas said not all social workers have been so cooperative, and that there's little consistency across shelters. Different social workers say they require different documents from parents.

"There's no rhyme or reason," she said. "It's a bureaucratic mess."

But sometimes, there's good news. Levy recently got a call that a Brazilian father and son had been reunited and dropped off at the Annunciation House shelter. She headed over to greet them and do a legal intake.

The father, who asked not to be named, teared up as he described his ordeal. He said he was initially told he would be separated from his son for three to five days and then deported. But three days passed, then four, then five. When he finally saw his son after 54 days, it took awhile to sink in.

Levy helped the pair get settled. They planned to spend the night at Annunciation House before flying out to stay with a friend. Then she returned to her office to try and set more reunions in motion.

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