EL PASO, Texas – Immigration attorneys and advocates say it will likely take days, perhaps weeks, to reunify children separated from their parents after President Trump signed an order stopping the heavily-criticized practice.
“The children will not be released immediately. Parents will not be released immediately,” said Melissa M. Lopez, Executive Director and attorney for Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Inc.
She’s one of nine attorneys contracted to represent 200 separated children currently housed at the Tornillo, Texas, port of entry.
Mothers and fathers, separated from their children, because they entered the U.S. illegally, must first go through his or her own legal process before reunifications will take place.
“This problem doesn’t end today with the signing of an executive order saying children won’t be separated from their family. There are already thousands of children that have been affected by this, and it won’t go away overnight,” Lopez added.
It was the power of the people that pressured the president to change his mind, she said.
“We do want people coming across our border, going through the port of entry. But we want people to come in through merit,” the president said at a rally in Minnesota on Wednesday night.
Another potential delay to reunifications is where to house the families. The children will be kept with parents at a family detention center. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement only operates three such centers – two outside San Antonio, Texas and another one in Pennsylvania.
Others will likely be needed, President Trump suggested Wednesday, to keep families together.
“My initial reaction is really gratified. They’re going to stop taking children away,” said Ruben Garcia, Executive Director of Annunciation House, an El Paso-based non-profit benefiting migrants and refugees.
Despite signing the order to stop separating families, President Trump insists he is still enforcing zero tolerance on the border. But that’s not the reality in El Paso, Garcia said.
So-called ‘catch and release’ is still underway. On Wednesday morning, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement turned over 125 undocumented immigrants – wearing ankle monitors – to Garcia at Annunciation House.
“They were detained by Border Patrol and they were still released because they don’t have the logistical capacity to implement zero tolerance right now,” Garcia added.
The 125 immigrants, the second large group of migrants this week, Garcia said, can travel to other states where relatives currently live as they await immigration hearings.
The other noticeable change after Trump’s announcement can be seen at the top of the international bridge connecting El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. For the last couple weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has placed an officer at the international line temporarily stopping asylum seekers from entering through the Mexican side.
But just a few hours after the president’s announcement, border guards were no longer visible on the bridges.