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Q&A with Melissa Lopez: What's the process of reuniting parents with children?

As the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy continues to unfold along the Southwestern border, Marfa Public Radio has been collecting your questions about immigration in West Texas. One listener asked us: "What's the process of reuniting parents with children, and what happens when children and parents can't be reunited? Do they go to foster care?"

To answer this question, Marfa Public Radio's Sally Beauvais spoke with Melissa Lopez. She directs an immigration legal aid clinic in El Paso that serves low-income immigrants and refugees.

Lopez’s clinic will provide legal services to the boys currently being housed at a tent encampment in the town of Tornillo, outside of El Paso. They’ll include Know-Your-Rights presentations, as well as individual legal screenings for potential asylum cases and other legal benefits. Per her contract with the Department of Health and Human Services, she can’t discuss the specifics of that work.


LOPEZ: In terms of how work has been lately, it’s been really hectic, at least for me. I’ve been trying to work with the Federal Public Defender’s office, and other private defense attorneys. You know, when their clients get separated from their children, often the parents are very panicked, and obviously their first and primary concern is always their children. They want to know where they are, they want to know how to get their children back. And so because we are the local provider of unaccompanied childrens’ services in El Paso, we have often had contact with the children that come through El Paso. And so what we’ve been doing is getting information from the parents about their children, using that information to try and locate the child. If we do, then what we’ve been doing is reaching out to the child, and getting their permission to share their information with their parent, and then if they agree then sharing their location and contact information with their parents. And really with their parent’s attorney so that they attorney can reach out and re-establish communication between the two parties.

BEAUVAIS: What is the process of reuniting parents with children as you’ve seen it in your work in El Paso?

LOPEZ: The word reunification is actually a legal term. When we say reunification, we’re talking about the formal process by which a child who was in custody is released from custody. So there’s a number of things that they have to do. Obviously they have to prove their relationship to the child, that’s the most important. There is also vetting, that is done, background checks, and sometimes home studies, right? They’ll do evaluation of the home conditions before a child is released. In this current environment of family separation, when we talk about reuniting the kids, I think we’re talking about a physical reunification and we, I have to be honest with you, haven’t seen that happen, or at least I haven’t heard of widespread cases of that happening yet. You know the pace at which the two different proceedings move, so the parents’ criminal proceeding and then their immigration proceeding, and the child’s, now separate proceeding - aren’t necessarily concurrent. So it could be that one’s process is terminated before the other. And so that’s one of the big questions with the president’s announcement yesterday - of the end of this policy, that there’s no real indication of how those parents and children are going to be rejoined.

BEAUVAIS: If a family member in the United States can’t be located, or reunification with the parent that the child traveled to the US with doesn’t seem possible, what is the next step for children in that situation?

LOPEZ: There are some limited foster situations in the federal immigration system. Ultimately what really controls is whether or not the child has any legal benefit that they can apply for that would allow them to remain in the United States. That’s really the key trigger. So if the child doesn’t have any options for reunification, and they’re not eligible for any benefits, they don’t qualify for asylum, they can’t apply through a family member, then typically what happens is their immigration case would be concluded. And then they would be taken from the shelter and returned to home country directly from the shelter. So never reunified, essentially.

BEAUVAIS: Does the Department of Homeland Security have an obligation to find a location to deport them to where they have family in their home country? Or is it as simple as, you know, here’s a city in the home country and we’re going to sit you on a plane and send you there?

LOPEZ: There is definitely a process to it. We are talking about deportation often. Sometimes it’s what’s called voluntary departure, which has the same result as a deportation but doesn’t carry the consequences of a deportation. And typically for children, they qualify for voluntary departure. In terms of how they’re returned, the United States has agreements with every foreign country that we deport people to. And it’s really - the conditions about where people are returned and how they are returned are dictated by theses agreements. So the foreign government typically, once, let’s say a child is ordered deported. The foreign government, let’s say they’re from Guatemala, the US government will reach out to the Guatemalan government, confirm that the child is a citizen of Guatemala and can be returned there, and then also they will ensure that they have the proper travel documents to return the child. And then it’s up to the agencies in Guatemala once they arrive to decide what happens to the child. Often children are turned over to whatever the federal foreign child agency is. The child typically will either be met by a parent or turned over to the custody of the federal government in their home country.

Diana Nguyen is a reporter for Marfa Public Radio.