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Why Reuniting Migrant Families Is So Difficult


Thirty days - that is how long a federal judge gave the government to reunite families who were separated at the border under President Trump's zero-tolerance policy. Immigration lawyers representing the families are not optimistic about that given the roadblocks they have been facing. And let's talk to Linda Rivas. She is an attorney based in El Paso, Texas. Welcome.

LINDA RIVAS: Hello. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on. I know you represent some of these families. Could you maybe tell me about one case that sort of illustrates what's happening?

RIVAS: Absolutely. I have a case of a young mother from Guatemala who currently has been affected by every policy that is currently happening on the border by the Trump administration. To start off, she comes with her 3-year-old daughter. They are escaping violence. She is turned back at the bridge. So she's trying to make a valid asylum claim and is turned back at the bridge a total of six times, told that they do not have the capacity to have her and her daughter in a holding cell with CBP.

She finally makes the decision to come in through the exit portion of the port, which she ended up being prosecuted for illegal entry, and in doing so, separated from her 3-year-old daughter. Her 3-year-old daughter is unfortunately all the way in New York now, so far away from her mom, in what my client believes is in foster care.

GREENE: Already in the care of a foster family in New York state?

RIVAS: Correct. And it's - I believe it's due to her young age. This little girl is 3 years old.

GREENE: So are federal agencies helping you and this mother get her daughter back?

RIVAS: I - we met her about a couple of days ago. The first interview she couldn't get through because she was crying. But I will tell you in other cases, you know, depending on who you're speaking to, they are trying to be helpful. But it's clear to me that they do not have a system, nor a directive that they're following.

GREENE: Because it's really complicated, right? I mean, once a little girl like this gets into the foster care system, there are all sorts of other state laws and requirements that start to come up that really probably muddy this for you.

RIVAS: True. And we need to focus on getting her out first, and then the reunification process begins. So what we're seeing is, will this order from the federal judge prompt them to let parents out as soon as possible? And that's what we're not sure about.

GREENE: Oh, so you're saying that the mother is still being held in detention, and the first step for this reunification would be to get her out. Is it at all possible that she might be deported before she's able to be reunited? Because that is one question that's come up in some of these cases.

RIVAS: It is possible. And we've seen it happen before. What happens is that two legal cases are created upon the separation of the parent and the child. When this happens, her case can go much quicker. Being that she is detained under ICE custody, she could have a hearing quicker or she may not pass credible fear.

GREENE: Are you optimistic that this judge's order and President Trump's executive order are going to change things and start speeding things up at some point?

RIVAS: We believe it's good news, and it's something for us as advocates to look forward to if we can compel ICE to release some of these parents. Unfortunately, we're not sure the kind of effect it's going to have in this administration.

GREENE: Attorney Linda Rivas is executive director at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas.

Thanks a lot for your time.

RIVAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.