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Report from McAllen, Texas: No One Knows What Will Happen Now to Separated Migrant Children

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The government has no plans to reunite thousands of children who have been separated from their parents at the border, despite President Trump’s executive order claiming to end family separations. We speak with Zenén Jaimes, advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. He is part of their team that goes to the federal courthouse in McAllen each day since Trump began his “zero tolerance” policy, and collects information from parents who had their children taken away from them before they were taken to court to face criminal charges for crossing the border.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We go now to McAllen, Texas, where we’re joined by Zenén Jaimes, who is the advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. He’s part of their team that goes to the federal courthouse in McAllen each day since Trump began his “zero tolerance” policy, and collects information from parents who had their children taken away from them before they were taken to court to face criminal charges for crossing the border.

So, Zenén, can you talk about your response to the executive order and what you’ve learned from the parents who you’ve spoken to at the courthouse?

ZENÉN JAIMES: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on. I think your guests already hit the nail on the head. This is, for us, no solution to what the crisis is actually happening.

Now, since the executive order—since the “zero tolerance” policy was announced, we knew that McAllen and South Texas was going to be ground zero, because this is where we’re seeing most of the crossings, as well as asylum seekers. And so, since the end of May to today, we have interviewed over 350 people and done intake with them. And these are people who have been separated from their children, right? And so, this is just in the McAllen courthouse. And as of right now, we’re looking to connect all of them with legal counsel. But the crisis remains, right? We have no idea what the next steps are to connect them with their children, who are currently in ORR shelters. And speaking personally, having done these intakes myself, we’ve spoken to mothers with children as young as 4 years old, to fathers with children who are 16 years old, who came here because they were being threatened by gang members or being threatened to join these gangs.

And Bob also had talked about this very clearly, but the crisis was, from the beginning, the “zero tolerance” policy. And instead of going back on that, the executive order yesterday actually doubled down. We can still expect the same number of prosecutions to be happening in the McAllen courthouse. And for us, it’s going to be just as important to keep going, because, actually, the separation will continue. When someone is sent from the CBP processing center to the McAllen courthouse, they will not be with their child, right? So there’s going to be around a 72-hour turnaround from when that person is getting their criminal prosecution to when they’re exactly going to be sent to a family detention center, which is still unclear where exactly, because we’re already at capacity with almost all of these centers.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you also say something, Zenén, about the Flores settlement and whether you think it’s actually possible for it to be negotiated or changed in such a way that the Trump administration will actually be able to detain children for more than 20 days?

ZENÉN JAIMES: Yeah, so, you know, many people have fought for the Flores settlement, for many decades at this point. We now sort of see and understand—and many people have been raising this alarm for many weeks now—that this was the initial intention of the administration, right? To thump up a ruckus, separate these people, and then, when it came down to it, when the images became too horrific, to say, “Well, OK, well, we can keep them together. We’re just going to keep them together in jail.”

Now, it remains to be seen how exactly this is going to work. We are sort of hearing different things, but we think that it’s going to be the intention of the administration to basically try to violate the Flores agreement and, this way, force an entire conversation on this. And that would be catastrophic, because it would lead to the indefinite detention of these families, which we know this is what the administration is seeking in the first place as a way to deter people from even coming. And we have to keep that in mind, right? They’re trying to punish children and families to basically send a message to the rest of the Americas and all over the world that if you come here, not only will you get criminal prosecution, but we will hold you in a prison for an indefinite amount of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you explain what it means, Zenén, when the government announces today, if parents want to get their children back, they have to go through the normal sponsorship process? And really, what exactly is happening? I mean, we spoke to Congressmember Jayapal, who went to a prison in Washington state where well over a hundred women are held. A number of them, their children, they don’t know where they were. They were shipped to—the mothers were flown to Washington state. Meanwhile, you have the secretary of homeland security saying, “Oh, they can Skype their kids all the time.” They don’t know where they are. And what it means to say they can now go through the normal sponsorship process? When they call a number that they were handed in court, it says something like, “If you want to get your kid back, you can leave a message here, but know that what you say here can and will be used against you in court.”

ZENÉN JAIMES: Yes, exactly. And you sort of highlighted the exact nature of the black hole of all of the information here. So, what we’re currently thinking what will be happening—and remember, this is just all very new, and the administration has not been clear—is that parents who are currently in immigration detention will have to go through the normal Office of Refugee Resettlement process to sponsor and get their children back.

Now, this, in itself, is a long and arduous process. And remember that ORR is under the Health and Human Services Department. This can involve months of background checks, fingerprinting, in some instances saliva tests. Part of the ACLU lawsuit that happened a couple months ago showed that one mother had to take saliva tests four times to basically prove that it was her child.

And at the end of the day, the administration is making it even more difficult to get people—children sponsored. So, you know, it might be many months, and in some cases maybe over a year, before parents, who, remember, are in detention facilities—many of them will not have legal counsel or any kind of help to navigate all of the system, before they even get a chance of sponsoring and seeing their children again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for joining us, Zenén Jaimes, joining us from McAllen, Texas.

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