McALLEN — A controversial tactic currently being considered by the Trump administration that would separate undocumented children from their parents after they are caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border may be more about circumventing court action and less about deterrence, immigrant advocates said.
The tactic, currently being considered by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, occurs after immigration officials have been blocked by court orders from expanding family detention centers in Texas.
Justin Tullis, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), said Wednesday that separating children from their parents and handing them off to HHS could be one way for ICE to get around the judge’s ruling blocking family detention centers.
“It would most likely be found illegal under U.S. law, the constitution, and many other things,” Tullis said. “It would be a humanitarian disaster that would hopefully be short lived as we’ve seen with a number of the administration’s moves.”
Reuters first reported that the Trump administration was considering separating parents and children at the Mexico border. And during a later interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Kelly confirmed the reports.
“Yes I’m considering (that), in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents. … It’s more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network,” Kelly said, referring to the network of organized crime that smuggles these migrants.
He also said they would turn the children over to Health and Human Services who, “…do a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.”
The news has had members of Congress, immigration advocates, and human rights groups guessing expressing concern about such action. Some say it’s related to the recent executive orders asking for the expansion of detention centers, while others are guessing it’s to fulfill campaign promises.
Three members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, sent a letter to Kelly this week asking that he reconsider the tactic of separating parent and child.
What none have mentioned is the recent expansion of HHS shelters and that, despite President Donald Trump’s orders to expand detention centers near the U.S-Mexico border, a December ruling from an Austin judge blocked DHS from holding both immigrant children and parents in privately owned prisons.
Blocking Family Detention
Last December, immigrant rights groups celebrated the ruling by Judge Karin Crump of the 275th District Court to cancel the licensing of family detention centers in Texas to function as child care providers.
This fight had been playing out in the courts since 2014 when the Obama administration revived the controversial practice of incarcerating undocumented parents along with their children in private prisons also known as family detention centers – or as Austin based immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership called them “baby prisons.”
“We are glad the court heard our concerns about the damage that family detention does to mothers and their children and how lowering standards to issue licenses to these facilities only exacerbates that harm. We now call on the Obama Administration to end the practice of detaining immigrant families once and for all,” Bob Libal, a plaintiff in the case, and executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said at the time.
But the judge’s ruling did not immediately shut the doors of the two largest family detention centers located in Karnes and Dilley, Texas near San Antonio.
In a December statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stated, “Operational activities continued without interruption,” and last month while ICE was still holding more than 2,000 people in family detention they stated they had not made any changes regarding how families are processed.
Meanwhile HHS, who Kelly said Monday would be tasked with caring for immigrant children after they are separated from their parents, has been finding new places to house unaccompanied minors here in the Valley.
After reaching out to Homeland Security for confirmation about ICE’s plans to expand its detention capacities, The Monitor was referred to a webpage with questions and answers from the department that failed to answer any of the questions being asked.
The Monitor was asked to contact HHS for further comment but they were also unable to answer any questions and directed questions to Homeland Security.
“We cannot speculate on what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) might or might not be considering. For Department of Homeland Security questions, please contact DHS,” read a Tuesday email from HHS officials.
There have been at least three funding opportunity announcements finalized or initiated by HHS to open new permanent shelters that can house hundreds of immigrant children in Brownsville, Harlingen, and Mission since the end of last year.
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is mandated to provide basic child care in the least restrictive setting. There are about a dozen of these shelters already in the Valley, some which have operated for more than nine years.
One of the new shelters is an old Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville that was originally scheduled to open next week.
The operator of the new 208,000-square-foot facility is Southwest Key Programs, a national non-profit that currently operates five shelters for unaccompanied migrant children in Cameron County.
Earlier this week, The Monitor asked Southwest Key Programs if there has been any mention of this new center being used to house immigrant children that have been separated from their parents or guardians after crossing the border.
“The federal government has not communicated to Southwest Key Programs any intention of changing the scope of child population served through the federal Unaccompanied Children’s Services Program,” the company said in a written statement.
Negotiations are also under way for a 27-acre property in Mission owned by the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Church to be converted into one of these facilities, according to Othal E. Brand Jr., executive director of the Harlingen-based Valley Baptist Missions Education Center.
Brand said ORR approached them late last year about turning the Valley Baptist Retreat, located on Stewart Road just south of Bus. 83, into a permanent shelter that could house about 85 children. But this is not the first shelter owned by Valley Baptist, which, for the last nine years, has been renting out and helping operate a shelter in Harlingen that houses 250 boys.
“They came nine years ago on our campus and said we’d like to rent some facility from you, so we have a portion of our campus that is used by them,” Brand said early last week. “We don’t have any involvement other than we do feed them and that’s it.”
Uncertainty and Speculation
When asked last week if he thought HHS was trying to expand in preparation for children being separated from their parents at the border, Brand said he thought “that would be cruel,” and said HHS’s recent expansion efforts were more related to Trump’s executive order titled Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.
The order, signed on Jan. 25, calls for Kelly to take all appropriate actions to immediately construct, operate, or control facilities to detain illegal crossers at or near the land border with Mexico. Brand said despite knowing Judge Crump’s ruling blocked ICE from the expansion of family detention centers in Texas, he still supported Trump’s executive order because he thought they were unrelated.
“I think it makes a lot of sense for the government, in order to be spending our tax dollars wisely, those facilities should be here,” Brand said. “Otherwise border patrol has to transfer them all over the United States, which is what they’ve been doing.”
In the same order, Trump promises to end the so called “catch and release” policy, which the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) said Monday could be the reasoning behind separating parents from children after they are caught at the border.
“The measure aligns with President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to toughen immigration enforcement and end ‘catch and release,’ by which undocumented immigrants are allowed to remain in the U.S. while awaiting legal immigration proceedings,” read a statement from LULAC which also denounces Kelly for considering the proposal of separating parents and children.
“Separating an innocent child from their parent after enduring the most dangerous journey of their life is simply cruel and can have long-term impacts even after reunification,” read a statement from Roger C. Rocha, Jr. National President of LULAC. “These children are often already struggling to handle the violence and poverty endured in their native countries. The Department of Homeland Security should not remove the one buffer that helps children cope with the trauma of these collective experiences, their parent.”
At RAICES in San Antonio, where many of the families released from the family detention centers in Karnes and Dilley are welcomed and provided services, Tullis continues waiting for official word on what all of these moves by the administration actually mean.
“What I can say is that this is the administration’s playbook. They love to roll out some kind of broad stroke, big move without explaining or even knowing themselves how it’s going to play out,” Tullis said.
“Who knows if anything that we are actually seeing happening is related to something that they put in the executive order. It seems time and again when they roll out something, it’s ill thought out, ill informed, and they may well change it again the next month.”