The first thing the lawyer noticed is that the children refused to leave their fathers’ side.
Usually, when Manoj Govindaiah meets migrant families in detention centers, the kids head to an area with toys while he speaks with their parents in private visitation rooms, he said.
But in a court declaration filed Wednesday, Govindaiah described children refusing to play with toys or watch television when he visited them this week.
The children’s families were recently reunited at the detention center, said Govindaiah, a lawyer with RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. Several boys sat in their fathers’ laps even though they had their own chairs. Others seemed angry at their fathers “but simultaneously relieved to be with them,” he said.
The behavior appeared to be a consequence of the frenzy to reunite thousands of separated families separated at the border before Thursday’s deadline, Govindaiah said.
“The trauma these families have experienced as a result of the separation cannot be underestimated,” he said in a declaration. “With these families, the complexity of the case and the trauma have combined to create a very slow process.”
Of the estimated 2,500 families with children ages 5 to 17 who were supposed to be reunited by 6 p.m. Thursday, about 1,012 of those families had been reunited by Tuesday, according to government statistics. As many as 914 parents won’t be reunited with their children this week because of their criminal records, or because they’ve already been deported without their children, according to the government.
The government said the deportations occurred with the parents’ consent. But court documents filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union claim some parents say they signed paperwork they didn’t understand and unknowingly relinquished their rights to reunite with their children.
The documents provide a detailed account of what ACLU attorneys allege is a “mess” playing out at a number of US immigrant detention centers as officials scramble to meet Thursday’s court-ordered deadline.
The revelations came as the ACLU continues to argue that reunited families should have seven days together before they are deported. Government attorneys have argued that four days should be enough time for parents and children to confer and decide on their next steps, including whether the children should stay with their parents.
At least 900 parents have been issued final removal orders, according to statistics provided by the government, meaning they are imminently facing deportation and must decide whether they want their children to be deported with them or whether they should remain in the United States and continue to fight their own immigration cases.
Based on declarations from more than a dozen attorneys who interviewed parents and children from separated families, the court filing alleges that even after they’re reunited, traumatized families are having trouble deciding what to do next, some parents feel they were coerced into signing documents allowing them to be deported without their children.
Here are some of the key allegations the lawyers made:
Parents felt they signed documents they didn’t understand
Many detained migrants come from parts of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras where indigenous languages are spoken. But lawyers who spoke to detainees said many of them reported receiving forms related to their cases in Spanish or English, languages they don’t understand. According to a Department of Homeland Security official, officers are required to read the form to an immigrant in the language he or she understands and certify the procedure was followed, including identifying any interpreter who was used.
Attorney Luis Cruz said he spoke to five fathers who signed away their right to reunification with their children. But none could read or write English or Spanish, and they did not understand the implications of what they were signing, Cruz said.
Cruz said each of the fathers told him they were not given the opportunity to ask questions or speak with their children about the decision. None had received copies of the signed forms, he said. All wish to be reunited with their children.
Lawyer Gail Suchman shared a similar account from a woman in another detention center. The mother from El Salvador told her a detention center agent gave her a paper to sign in English, even though she does not speak or read English. She also demonstrated difficulty writing her name in Spanish, Suchman said.
According to a Department of Homeland Security official, a notice of parents’ rights is posted in both English and Spanish in each detention facility operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement where those affected by the lawsuit are detained.
Parents felt coerced into signing documents
Another woman told Suchman that an ICE agent said she could not ask for asylum because of where she crossed: It was too far from an official port of entry. The agent said the woman had no options.
“She did not want to sign anything but believed she had no option. She signed a paper that the agent told her would allow her son to stay here if she were to be deported,” Suchman said.
CNN reached out to ICE for comment but the agency has not responded.
One of the five fathers Cruz spoke to said he was taken into an area at a detention center with 20 to 30 other fathers and pressured to sign a form.
“He said that he was given a form, that it was not explained to him, and that the entire process lasted no more than three minutes. He said that he felt sad and intimidated during this process. He expressed that he believed he had no choice but to sign the form.”
Charles Mwalimu, another attorney, said he met a Honduran mother who was separated from her 16-year-old son. She told Mwalimu that while she was in government custody, officers told her to sign a form that would lead her to be reunited with her son.
“She could not read the form herself because her Spanish literacy is minimal. Only later did she learn that she had signed away her right to be reunified with her child,” Mwalimu said in his declaration.
Another lawyer who visited a different facility shared a similar account.
“Many of these individuals indicated that they felt coerced into relinquishing their rights,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick said. “Still others appeared totally unaware that they had done so. Indeed, some individuals were adamant that they had signed a paper that said they chose to be reunited with their children.”
Families who have reunited so far are said to be traumatized
Lawyer Leah Chavla said she counseled reunited families in one detention center.
Parents are “disoriented and overwhelmed” from the rapid reunification and transfer process. Many barely know the status of their cases, and sometimes, it is difficult to get basic information from them, she said.
She described one encounter she had with an 11-year-old boy who had recently reunited with his mother:
“The boy would barely speak through the entire interview, only sometimes slightly nodding or shaking his head to answer simple – yes or no – questions. He only stared forward with an intent expression that looked like he was concentrating so as to not cry. His mother repeatedly told him to speak to us, but he could not speak.”
As for the parents, Govindaiah said many showed a level of distrust he had never experienced before in his work.
He showed one father his driver’s license, his bar card and his name in the RAICES database before the man believed who he was, he said. A meeting with another father ended abruptly because the man could not stop crying after learning he might be deported without his son, Govindaiah said.
“Typically, we can proceed through an initial meeting with a detained family relatively quickly; this process includes asking basic intake questions, assessing their legal options, and educating them about the credible fear process,” he said. “With these families, the complexity of the case and the trauma have combined to create a very slow process.”