Chaos, Coercion Alleged as U.S. Government Prepares to Deport Many Separated Migrant Families

A migrant child looks out the window of a bus as protesters try to block a bus carrying migrant children out of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Detention Center on June 23, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Many migrant parents separated from their children under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy are scheduled to be deported with little or no time to discuss their cases with their families and attorneys.

That's according to the latest filing in the San Diego-based federal case that set a Thursday deadline for the U.S. government to reunite the bulk of 2,551 children taken from their parents.

To bolster their argument that deportations should be delayed for a week after families are reunited, the ACLU filed more than a dozen declarations Wednesday from lawyers working with parents in immigration custody.

The declarations describe the confusion of dozens of parents who say they unwittingly signed away their rights under the case, sometimes under pressure and sometimes in mass groups with no opportunity to ask questions about their options.

Immigration attorney Aaron Reichlin-Melnick wrote that he and other volunteer attorneys spoke to 52 parents who the government says waived reunification with their children.

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"Many of these individuals indicated that they felt coerced into relinquishing their rights," Reichlin-Melnick's declaration says. "Still others appeared totally unaware that they had done so."

The declaration goes on to describe several cases, including that of a Guatemalan father who signed a form agreeing to have his son sent to live with other family members in the U.S.:

However, he said that he signed the form under enormous amounts of stress and confusion. He is extremely worried for his son's wellbeing and burst into sobs repeatedly throughout our interview when he expressed how horrible the separation has made him feel. He wishes to be reunited with his son but indicated that he does not know his son's wishes or what options he has. Because the last time he had spoken with his son was a month ago, he is extremely afraid that he might have made the wrong decision because of lack of information.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice said in court earlier this week that parents and children have had access to phone calls with each other and with attorneys for about a month. They argue in court filings that the forms describing the parents' options and rights in the case are clear, and parents should not be subjected to making a difficult choice more than once. The form is written in English but must be read to the parent in their native language.

But the dozens of parents described in the ACLU's latest filing say they've had limited communication with their children and no contact with attorneys. Many say the form was not translated for them.

"People have at some point been given a few minutes on the phone with their kid," ACLU attorney Spencer Amdur said in an interview. "This is after being separated for weeks or months. All of a sudden they get a 20-minute phone call, and everybody’s crying the whole time."

The Trump administration policy that led to family separation began in early May. Judge Dana Sabraw ordered it to stop in late June. Most parents and children have been held separately for at least a month, many for two or three months.

Deportations are temporarily on hold while Sabraw considers arguments for and against the ACLU's request that each parent be given a week after being reunited to get legal advice and consider the best options for themselves and their children. Many families came seeking asylum from violence in their home countries in Central America.

Of the 2,551 children separated from their parents as of the government's latest tally, more than 1,600 were eligible to be reunited with their parents by the court's Thursday deadline. Federal lawyers said slightly more than 900 parents were "ineligible" for the following reasons:

  • 130 Because the parent waived their right to rejoin their children;
  • 64 Because of the adult's criminal history or other red flags in their background;
  • 463 Because the parent is no longer in the U.S. and appears to have been deported without their child;
  • 260 Because the cases are still under evaluation, including parents released into the U.S. who the government has been unable to locate.

Parents of more than half of the children who are being reunified have been ordered deported.

"The government’s proposal would be to give them no time at all," Amdur said. "So these families would see each other for the first time and then immediately be sent to the airport and deported with no time to decide what’s the best option."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday. The judge will determine whether the government has met the deadline to reunify families and also hear arguments about whether to continue blocking deportations.