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Paper Cuts: How Can I Contact My Daughter?

Paper Cuts collage of a person writing next to a polaroid of a child
(Illustration by POGO)

After weeks of growing public condemnation over the devastating impact of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy on Central American families seeking sanctuary at the U.S. border, the President issued an Executive Order last week to end the practice of separating children from detained parents.

Paper Cuts is an occasional POGO feature examining and explaining primary sources relevant to current events connected to the federal government.

Here at POGO we care a lot about documents.

To properly monitor elected and career federal government leaders for fraudulent behavior, wasted tax money or abuse of privilege, POGO studies a lot of paper records.

Although it’s true that every picture tells a story, at POGO, every document tells a backstory.

For the moment, children who enter the immigration justice system with an adult family member will not be separated from them. Due to overcrowding and the lack of facilities to accommodate families in detention, the three-month-old practice of referring for prosecution all adults entering without visas, including the ones carrying children, has been suspended. Until the recent crackdown, adults arriving with children were almost never referred for prosecution. (The reprieve itself may also be temporary. President Trump scorns the more pragmatic practice he calls “catch and release” and hopes to soon acquire resources to resume prosecuting parents and get legal permission to detain families for longer.)

The children who had already been separated by Customs and Border Protection, however, were not immediately reunited with their families. The government’s “reunification” plan announced over the weekend appears to be a work in progress. The great unanswered question is how quickly the agencies responsible for the adjudication of those caretakers can track down over 2,000 children already removed, and return them to their loved ones. Advocates helping the jailed (or, in some cases, already deported) parents locate and communicate with their missing children complain there is not an efficient tracking system to locate these small individuals.

On June 19, the day the before the Executive Order was signed, one of those orphaned parents, a Guatemalan woman named Lilian—currently being held at a detention facility in Irvine, California—filled out an ICE form in Spanish (below) that allows detained individuals to seek information regarding their case status or financial arrangements. The written requests are typically responded to within 72 hours.

Lilian did not check any of the boilerplate boxes such as “When is my next court date?” “Can ICE reduce my fine?” “When will I be deported?” or “Can my family leave me money/property before I am deported?” She had only one question, filled in by hand under “Other request?”

Asked as politely as one could on a government form, Lilian wrote in Spanish, “Good day, please can you send the telephone number to communicate with my daughter Britany.” She added a date of 10-05-2011 but it is unclear whether that is her child’s date of birth or some other identifier. (POGO redacted Lilian and Britany’s family name for their privacy.)

The ICE official (last name VanDyke) who reviewed her query was unable to help. His six-word response in English: “I do not have this information.”

In a call to the facility, POGO asked VanDyke about Lilian’s request. He recalled being unable to find a record on the child’s whereabouts looking in the EAGLE integrated database (Enforcement Arrest Guide for Law Enforcement). Lilian’s inquiry was not typical for his department and he referred the mother to his supervisor to provide more information about her daughter. He told me his boss would be in training till the end of the week.

Based on the nationwide confusion about this dilemma, it’s not likely anyone else at ICE has been able to tell Lilian how to get in contact with a little Guatemalan girl named Britany. Gratefully, Lilian’s nightmare may soon be over. A federal judge in San Diego, calling the reunification backlog “a chaotic circumstance of the Government’s own making,” set a 30-day alarm clock, ruling Tuesday that agencies holding 2,047 migrant children in American custody have just one month to return each one to the people they took them from.

By: Bonnie Goldstein
Investigative Advisor, POGO

Bonnie Goldstein is an investigative advisor with the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability, Justice System

Related Content: Immigrant Detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Department of Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security, Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Authors: Bonnie Goldstein

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