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Border parent-children reunifications lagging

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

ANTHONY – A prison in southern New Mexico is among the facilities where parents separated from their children have been locked up under the federal zero-tolerance crackdown on illegal immigration.

More than two dozen women, some mothers, remain in an Otero County lockup, including a mother from El Salvador.

Parents separated from their children arrive at Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso for migrants and refugees, after they were released. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

She was separated from her three children at the border and has been behind bars for 28 days, according to her husband.

He’s a former police officer who is seeking asylum in the United States. The man said he was forced to flee death threats in El Salvador.

When his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 10, and a 12-year-old son also faced threats, they set off to join him.

When they arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum, they were separated. The three children were sent to a shelter in New York.

“My son just celebrated his birthday far from his family,” the man said. “When they allowed me to talk to him on the phone he cried and told me he wanted his mother, me and his sisters to all be together again.”

Although the release rate of those held is quickening since President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 “keeping families together,” reunions of parents with their children have been slow.

The Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, run by the Management and Training Corp., has a maximum capacity for 1,420 inmates. It houses mostly men facing criminal charges for both the U.S. Marshals Service and the state of New Mexico.

“On occasion ICE houses a small number of its detainees at this facility as well,” said Issa Arnita, director of corporate communications for MTC, the private company that runs the prison. “Currently, 29 female detainees are being housed at this facility.”

When the Trump administration moved to criminally prosecute everyone who crossed the border illegally, parents were sent to jails and prisons while their kids were put in far- flung shelters across the country run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The exact number of parents locked up at the Otero County facility during the zero tolerance period is not available.

A court-ordered deadline requires HHS to reunite children 5 and under with their parents by Tuesday. The federal government has until the end of July to return older kids to their mothers or fathers.

“These parents need to be released from ICE custody in order to see their children again,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, which also handles cases from southern New Mexico.

But Rivas said she doubts the Tuesday deadline will be met.

“We have not seen a successful reunification this week from the women who were released on bond. I’m not hopeful about anybody meeting the deadline,” said Rivas.

Rivas said the Department of Homeland Security used the El Paso-southern New Mexico area for a pilot program to test the zero-tolerance policy.

“Last year we saw women detained at the county facility in Otero,” she said.

The state Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee will hold a hearing to learn more about detention facilities run by private companies that incarcerate people for immigration violations during a hearing on July 16 in Santa Fe.

Zero tolerance

Understanding how and where immigrants are detained involves information from a web of agencies, including the Border Patrol, ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service, county and federal prisons, and detention centers run by both the federal government and private companies.

Under the zero-tolerance policy that took effect in May, people detained by Border Patrol agents after crossing the border illegally faced criminal prosecution and were sent to county or federal jails until they were seen by a magistrate or judge. It was at this point that children were taken from parents and sent to shelters, since they could not be kept in adult prisons.

It typically takes two weeks to a month to see a judge or magistrate for those parents who take a plea and don’t contest charges.

Some of the first parents released from detention after Trump’s announcement included 32 mothers and fathers who arrived at Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso for migrants and refugees. About eight of those parents in that first group had spent time behind bars at the Otero County facility.

In recent days, the pace has picked up and more parents have been released from custody, according to immigration lawyers and advocates who are handling the cases.

“That is definitely the good news. That is step one of the reunification,” said Rivas.

But all still face deportation proceedings.

Most must wear GPS ankle monitors and are required to check in with authorities and appear at hearings as their cases, including asylum claims, move through immigration court.

As the court-ordered Tuesday deadline looms to reunite children under 5 with their parents, even those mothers and fathers who have been freed are struggling to get their kids back.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the agency would work extra hours through the weekend in an attempt to meet the deadline for reunification.

“HHS is continuing to work overtime to connect minors with verified parents within the constraints applied by the court. We are also doing DNA testing to confirm parentage quickly and accurately,” said Azar.

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center is helping half a dozen mothers released on bond this week get their children back. It expects another three to be freed next week and begin the process.

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