With the federal government unlikely to meet a Thursday deadline to reunite migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, Texas lawmakers called on state governmental agencies to better serve migrant children detained in shelters statewide.
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus, comprising mostly Democrats, on Tuesday released a series of recommendations to ensure children receive free legal representation and trauma-informed care and to improve oversight of the facilities and data collection on migrant children.
“We have a moral responsibility to intervene when we see cruel policies that are being implemented that hurt our nation’s most vulnerable population — our children,” state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said during a news conference at the Capitol.
It’s impossible to know how many of the 5,000 children currently detained in Texas shelters were separated from their parents earlier this year under President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which criminally prosecutes anyone caught crossing into the U.S. illegally. The state doesn’t track how many children were separated from families, and the federal government forbids shelters to reveal such information.
Since Trump ended the family separation policy last month, the federal government has been slow to reunite 2,551 migrant children with their parents. According to court documents filed Monday, the federal government has reunited 879 parents with their children and officials plan to reunify another 538 parents with their children by Thursday, meaning hundreds of separated families will remain in limbo.
“The federal government is responding. … It’s just not doing so in a way that is as efficient, effective or transparent that I think we deserve to have from the government of the United States of America,” Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said during Tuesday’s news conference.
Uncertainties of reunification
Of the 382 immigrant parents represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, 72 have been reunited with their children and released from detention centers, 26 have been reunited and remain in detention centers, and 73 are detained but haven’t been reunited with their children, Marziani said. Six were deported without their children.
Court documents show the federal government reported that 463 parents separated from their children are no longer in the U.S., indicating they might have been deported while their children remained in the U.S., according to The Washington Post.
Texas attorneys working to reunify children and parents have characterized the process as sluggish and disorganized. Manoj Govindaiah with the Texas nonprofit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services said part of the problem is that separated children and parents often have separate immigration cases each under the purview of different federal agencies. Attorneys have difficulty determining where their clients are in the legal process.
The reunification itself can also be chaotic, Govindaiah said.
“Our staff coming out of these detention centers have reported seeing 50, 70, 80 children in the parking lot of the detention center with child workers, presumably waiting for their parents so they can be reunified,” Govindaiah said.
Once they’re reunited, families are either shuffled off to detention centers in Karnes, southeast of San Antonio, and Dilley, southwest of San Antonio, or released to charities or family members. Such decisions are made with “no rhyme or reason,” Govindaiah said.
Helping detained children
As of July 13, 5,024 migrant children were in Texas shelters — both children separated from parents and those arriving at the border alone — an increase of 105 from June 21, according to the most recent data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Most of the increase occurred at a Brownsville shelter operated by Austin-based Southwest Key Programs, which is housing in 3,600 immigrant children at its shelters in Texas.
Southwest Key spokesman Jeff Eller said that increase is not unusual.
Typically more unaccompanied minors cross the border during the summer, and the federal government is sending more migrant children from other states to Texas in advance of reuniting with their parents, which can account for the slight growth at Texas shelters, Govindaiah said.
A year ago, there were 1,071 migrant children in Texas shelters, according to state data.
González said the lack of progress by the federal government coupled with reports of substandard conditions in facilities are why Texas needs to become more involved.
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus recommends the state:
• Continue to monitor the reunification process.
• Reject any policy that might prolong the detention of children.
• Allow children to call their parents more than twice a week.
• Require staffers at adult and children’s facilities to be trained on trauma-informed care.
• Ensure children are receiving routine medical care and follow-ups.
• Increase the number of facility visits, including unannounced ones, by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
• Improve communication with migrant children and families to ensure allegations of abuse and assault are being investigated.
• Require the Legislative Budget Board to conduct a cost analysis of the impact of the zero tolerance and family separation policies on the state.
González said state agencies can adopt many of the recommendations now without direction from the Legislature. The Legislature probably won’t consider any of the recommendations until the legislative session, which will begin in January.
“This is why it’s so important for us to remain vigilant,” González said. “There is no accountability for the administration to do the right thing. We have seen this time and time again.”