Nearly 3,000 kids were separated from their parents as a result of the White House’s zero tolerance immigration policy, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated last week. The government has not said how many of them were reunited with their parents, and officials have asked for more time to meet one of the reunification deadlines.
For the parents and children who have been brought back together, the celebrations may be short-lived. After reunification, they face a series of other obstacles – including long, complex legal proceedings, and possibly deportation. For children, the trauma of being separated from their parents will be long-lasting. Some families are only partially reunified; a child may be returned to his mother, for instance, while his father remains in detention.
Here’s a look at some of the situations that families might face even after being reunited.
A long, arduous fight to stay in the United States
Once immigrant parents are released from detention and reunited with their children, the next step for many of them is fighting to stay in the United States. Most immigrants coming from Central America are seeking asylum, and the court proceedings involved can be long, arduous and resource-intensive.
At the same time, they will also be dealing with adjusting to life in a new country, said Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the communications director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“The first time you saw this country, you might have been apprehended, in detention facilities, courtrooms or jails since you arrived, and all of a sudden you’re out,” Pérez said. “You have to find your way to your family. You have to get on a bus, you might have to get on a plane, you have to find a place to live. You might have to find a way to financially support yourself. All of those things are still factors and processes that all of these families have to go through.”
To claim asylum, a person has to prove they faced persecution at home because of their race, religion, national origin, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. That persecution can either be inflicted by the government or by individuals that the government can’t or won’t control.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has made it harder for people to qualify for asylum. The administration overturned asylum protections for domestic violence and gang violence victims, which could prevent the tens and thousands of people who apply for asylum each year from staying in the United States.
One way migrants can claim asylum is by arguing they are in danger because they belong to a particular social group. In the past, some would argue that their family was being targeted, and that made them a member of a persecuted social group. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently questioned that reasoning in the footnotes of the same recent ruling.
And even if an applicant meets the requirements for asylum, Sessions argued that they should also have to prove why they deserve it.
Finally, the Justice Department is considering a regulation that would prevent people who are convicted of illegally entering the United States from claiming asylum.
Reunited, then deported
For other immigrant families who were separated at the border, being reunited with their loved ones could be one of the final steps before they’re deported – in many cases, they’re sent back to the same brutal conditions they sought to escape. Many came to the United States fleeing gang violence, political instability, lack of economic opportunity or extreme poverty.
Once a judge orders that a parent be deported, the parent can choose to either have their children leave with them or remain in the United States.
Federal officials are also giving parents the option of signing a voluntary deportation order to speed up their cases, even if other legal options are available. If they do so, they are told they will be reunited with their children before being deported.
Advocacy groups are concerned that some parents don’t understand what they’re signing and aren’t receiving adequate help to approach their legal situations. They also say there is no evidence to suggest that voluntary deportation is a faster way for parents to be reunited with their kids.
Doctors have called family separation “government-sanctioned child abuse.” And even if immigrant children are reunited with their parents, they’re often left with lasting scars. That psychological and biological damage, professionals say, can’t be erased.
Children experience toxic stress and trauma as a result of being separated from their parents, wrote Daniel P. Keating, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, in an opinion for CNN. He said separation alters the way that children’s brains work and can wreak havoc on their development.
“The core impacts of trauma and toxic stress include the disruption of their stress system, leading to lifelong behavioral problems, cognitive difficulties, chronic inflammation, impaired health, and even early death,” Keating wrote. “Their attachment system will also be damaged, leading to persistent difficulties in making and sustaining successful relationships.”
Many children in detention facilities show signs of separation anxiety even if their parents are around, Luis Zayas, dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN. And because parents don’t have control over their circumstances while in detention, children can become insecure about their parents’ ability to protect them.
So far, parents who have been reunited with their kids say they have not received any warnings from the federal government on how to deal with the trauma that their children may now be experiencing, nor guidance on how to talk to their kids about what they endured.
Olivia Caceres, an immigrant from El Salvador, already sees the impact that separation has taken on her son. She, her partner and their two sons left El Salvador together, but had to split up when her younger child became ill. She and her older son continued on to the border, while her partner and her younger son arrived later. Caceres soon learned that her younger son was separated from his father at the border.
She said that her son has not been the same since they were reunited.
“I thought that, because he is so young he would not be traumatized by this experience, but he does not separate from me. He cries when he does not see me. That behavior is not normal,” she said in court documents.
Other families might still end up being separated
In late June, President Trump signed an executive order halting his administration’s practice of separating families at the border. Instead, going forward, the administration plans to detain children with their parents as the family’s case is processed.
Trump’s executive order seeks to detain families together indefinitely. But it could face legal challenges because of an existing court settlement that says children can’t be kept in detention for more than 20 days.
So what would happen once those 20 days are up?
Families could be separated again.
“You reunite the family; a clock is ticking. If it goes beyond 20 days, you either release the entire family, which is similar to the Obama policy that the President wants to change,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said on CNN. “Or you once again separate the family and send the child into some type of custodial care.”