Criminal cases against migrants who had been separated from their children stalled in two federal courts on Thursday, sowing confusion despite US President Donald Trump’s order to prosecute everyone suspected of illegal entry at the border.
This much we know: 77 people were brought to US district court in McAllen, Texas, Thursday morning for their first appearance. Before the hearing began, 17 of those people – all of whom had been separated from their children – were removed from the docket for reasons that were not immediately clear.
Throughout the day, conflicting messages from the US Attorney’s Office and the federal public defender’s office raised several questions: Were the charges dropped? Had they been charged to begin with? Where are they now and what happens to them next? Where are their children? Did the President’s latest executive order, which pledged to keep families together while maintaining a “zero tolerance” prosecution policy, have anything to do with the confusion?
As of Thursday night most of those questions remained unanswered. But an immigration lawyer unassociated with the cases said the confusion was the result of policies devised “off the cuff and without forethought.”
“There’s nothing normal about what’s happening,” said Atlanta-based immigration attorney Charles H. Kuck. “They don’t bring someone to court if they already have charges ready to go.”
Here’s how Thursday’s developments unfolded:
9:15 a.m. – Public defenders announce in court that the cases of 17 parents were “dismissed”
At the time, attorneys assisting with the reunification of families also say the charges were dropped.
“I don’t know the reason why. All we know is that we saw that 17 of those people were not being prosecuted, and all of them are parents with children,” said Carlos M. Garcia, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who was in the courtroom for the hearing.
“I think it’s a direct result of what’s going on in our administration, that they’re changing things on the fly and that’s why this happened today,” he said. And “these parents still don’t know where their children are.”
CNN reaches out to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas for clarification.
1:52 p.m – The US Attorney’s Office denies charges were dismissed
“The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas (SDTX) did not dismiss any immigration violation cases in McAllen federal court today. Media reports alleging SDTX cases were dropped or dismissed are inaccurate and misleading,” the office says in a statement.
The statement contains no further information. CNN follows up to ask why the office did not file charges or if the people will ever face charges.
2:13 p.m. – The US Attorney’s Office responds to CNN’s request for clarification
“For now what I can say is that we can only speak about cases that are a part of the public record,” a spokesperson says in an email.
3:02 p.m. – The Houston Federal Public Defenders’ Office says the 17 cases were removed from the docket
Marjorie Mayers, federal public defender for the Southern District of Texas, tells CNN that her office initially received a list of 77 people for the morning misdemeanor docket.
Then, before the hearing, US Customs and Border Protection told them that 17 cases involving heads of households were being removed from the docket, Meyers said.
It could be that the charges were not filed, she added. The government just did not proceed on those cases today.
3:49 p.m. – HHS says it is still awaiting guidance on the implementation of the executive order
“Our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors in our Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded facilities and reunifying children and teenagers with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since inheriting the program,” the agency says in a statement. “Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody.”
5:19 p.m. – The judge’s office confirms that the 17 cases were put on docket “by mistake”
The case manager for US District Court Judge J. Scott Hacker tells CNN that CBP told the court that the 17 defendants were put on the docket “by mistake.”
CBP informed the court of the error and those 17 were removed from the docket, the case manager said. The case was never officially opened in the judge’s system, the judge has not seen the complaint and the 17 were never presented to court.
Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, says that since May 24, his organization has interviewed 381 parents who have more than 400 children, with hopes of bringing them back together.
They cannot confirm with certainty that a single family has actually been reunited, he said.
Meanwhile, in El Paso…
Similar reports emerged Thursday of illegal entry cases being dismissed in the Western District Of Texas.
Maureen Franco, who heads the Federal Public Defender’s office in El Paso, confirmed that the US Attorney’s Office would not prosecute cases where parents and children were separated and unable to be housed together for the duration of the parent’s legal proceedings.
Later Thursday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas confirmed that “certain cases that were pending when Trump issued the order were dismissed today.”
“Following the President’s executive order, we are moving quickly to keep families together as we process the criminal charges for those who crossed illegally. The zero tolerance policy is still in effect but there is a necessary transition that will need to occur now that those charged are no longer being transferred to the custody of US Marshals and are staying together with their children in the custody of our partners at DHS. As part of that transition, the office today dismissed certain cases that were pending when the President issued the order. Contrary to reporting, the office did not issue any memorandum to the courts.”
Another immigration lawyer who’s not associated with the cases said the developments should be encouraging to critics of the administration’s zero tolerance policies.
“I don’t know why those cases were removed from the docket but it is a hopeful sign that some in our government are trying to right the ship,” Jeremy McKinney, a member of American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Executive Committee, noting that a “100% prosecution” policy is not normal.
“Section 1425 offenses for ‘entry without inspection’ are misdemeanors and generally treated as petty offenses. As such, the government never had to arrest and detain the adults, separating them from their children.”