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When the U.S. puts a border between migrant kids and their caretakers

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On June 12, Gerardo, a 41-year-old indigenous bricklayer from Guatemala, appeared before a U.S. immigration judge in El Paso, Texas. Since crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two months earlier with his 14-year-old son, he had been separated from the boy and forced to wait in Mexico for his hearing.

Now, he had only one question for the judge: “Can you help me get my son back?”

After they crossed into the United States, a border patrol agent declared the boy’s photocopied birth certificate to be fake, casting doubt on their father-son relationship. Despite Gerardo’s protestations in broken Spanish, officers took the boy, Walter, away.

Gerardo was sent to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to wait out his immigration court proceedings, with no idea where Walter was taken and no instructions on how to find him, according to Gerardo and his attorneys, who recounted the court appearance and circumstances of his case to Reuters. They asked that his surname be withheld because Gerardo fears for his family’s safety in Guatemala.

In a phone call to a cousin in Arkansas, Gerardo said, he learned that Walter was at a large migrant children’s shelter near Miami. Separated from his dad, Walter later recalled, “I felt like the world was crashing down on me.”

As a new Trump administration policy rapidly expands, family separations increasingly are complicated by a formidable barrier: an international border.

Started in January, the policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) requires some migrants to wait in Mexico for their immigration cases to be processed, while others – based largely on border authorities’ discretion – are allowed to wait in the United States. Under MPP, about 18,500 migrants have been returned to Mexico, Mexican officials say.

For a graphic on the programme, see:

When children are sent north of the border and caregivers south, communication and legal coordination suffer, kids’ emotional health can deteriorate and simply finding one another again can take weeks, according to about two dozen interviews with migrant families, their attorneys and advocates, case workers and researchers, as well as courtroom observations.

Although a court last year halted the widespread “zero tolerance” separations of migrant parents and children at the border, U.S. officials still separate certain family members there.

They separate children from parents if they believe documents to be fraudulent, the parent has a criminal record, they can’t prove parentage, or the child appears to be at risk. Officials also routinely separate children from non-parent relatives with whom they travelled, including aunts, siblings and grandparents – an approach also followed during the Obama administration that is meant to stem child trafficking.

This year, under MPP, border officials in some locations have been given the option to send such adults to Mexico rather than detain or release them in the United States pending their court hearings. The separated children are sent to U.S.-based children’s shelters.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said that parents are not being separated from children due to the MPP programme, and did not respond when asked whether they track children separated from other family members they had travelled with. The department’s Customs and Border Protection agency declined to comment on Gerardo’s case, citing privacy concerns.

In general, the Trump administration has said that it is cracking down on fraud at the border.

“We believe (smuggling organizations) have been coaching individuals by saying if you come to the border with a child and you purport to be a family unit, you will not get detained and you will be released into the interior,” said Gregory Nevano, assistant director at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s Homeland Security Investigations.

“We are trying to save and rescue children,” Nevano said.

ICE officials said they interviewed 2,475 “family units” (purported parents and children) on the southwest border who “presented indicia of fraud” between mid-April and July 5. Of those, 352 were found to be falsely claiming parent-child relationships.

Attorneys and children’s caseworkers say that when the caretaking adults are sent to Mexico, it’s more difficult to contact them because they often don’t have a fixed address. It’s also harder for the adults and children to connect: The 1-800 number available online to locate children in U.S. shelters doesn’t work from Mexico.

Meanwhile, younger children may not know the details of their asylum case or even the location of family members who might help or sponsor them in the United States.

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