On Monday, Border Patrol agents at a detention center in McAllen, Texas, took away the son of a woman from El Salvador, whom I’ll call María. Afterwards, according to Efrén Olivares, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project who spoke with María on Thursday, she and her son were kept in separate chain-link pens at the same facility. She saw him once during that time, from across the huge processing center, which is sometimes referred to as the “dog kennel.” Officers told María they had to separate them because she was going to federal court to face a criminal charge of illegal entry.
But when María got to court on Thursday morning, federal prosecutors dropped charges against her and 16 other immigrant parents who’d also been separated from their children. It’s not clear why the charges were dropped; the Department of Justice did not respond to questions. It’s tempting to see it as a sign of good news, perhaps a signal that the executive order that President Trump signed Wednesday evening is encouraging prosecutors to use discretion, softening the “zero-tolerance” policy that has led to thousands of family separations.
In reality, the dropped charges—and the executive order itself—raise many more questions than they answer. María, who told Olivares that she came to the United States for her son’s protection after two of her siblings were murdered in El Salvador, has no idea where her son is. Children are not supposed to stay at the McAllen processing facility for longer than 72 hours, and so presumably he’s already been transferred into custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and placed in a shelter. Trump’s executive order does nothing to help María and other parents find the more than 2,300 kids who’ve been taken from them. So far, the administration has no official process for reuniting them. (A spokesperson of the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday that the agency was “awaiting further guidance” on reunification.)
Instead, that job has largely been left to lawyers like Olivares. On Thursday morning, he and other attorneys met with the 17 parents whose charges had been dropped, and tried quickly to gather names, birth dates, and other identifying information about their children. The parents were exhausted; María couldn’t stop crying. Some had hoped they would be reunited in the courtroom. “They ask me, ‘How long before I see my child again?’ and I tell them I can’t lie, I don’t want to lie—I don’t know how long exactly,” Olivares said.
Over the last month, lawyers for the Texas Civil Rights Project have talked to more than 380 immigrant parents in courtrooms in McAllen whose children have been taken from them, in an attempt to ensure that there is some documentation of the separation; it’s unclear whether and how the government is tracking them. Other than one child who was released to a relative, they have not been able to confirm that any of those families have been reunified. “It’s insane,” Olivares said.