McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Several asylum-seeking families who are waiting in northern Mexican border towns have begun sending their children alone across international bridges into South Texas, and might not see their children again for months or even years, human rights groups told Border Report on Thursday.
The children are crossing unaccompanied into McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers last week began enforcing a rule that requires all asylum-seekers to have scheduled interviews via the CBP One app, the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government told Border Report.
Priscilla Orta, a supervising attorney with Lawyers for Good Government, said the children are not being allowed to cross and attend the asylum interviews with their parents, leaving them with the “difficult decisions” of whether to send the children alone into the United States or cross without them and leaving them behind.
Out of desperation, some families are sending children unaccompanied across the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, and the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Orta said.
“Last Monday, they started coming to the bridge, expecting, as usual, to be let in. They were not and there in the moment, families were forced to decide,” she said.
“Some people are having the kids cross before or after them as unaccompanied minors, and some folks are leaving them behind with aunts or uncles mistakenly believing that aunts or uncles could cross the children,” Orta told Border Report. “Unfortunately, that will not happen. The children will then be considered unaccompanied minors when they arrive with the aunt or uncle. But the family members do not understand the intricacies of U.S. immigration law. They haven’t even been able to access an attorney yet. They’re simply asking to be let in so they can begin that process. And so there’s a lot of confusion and a lot of difficult decisions being made.”
Mark Redwine, pastor of Church of the Nazarene in Brownsville, on Thursday visited with migrants in a Matamoros encampment where he said the children separation issue has everyone worried.
“Walking around the camp today was heartbreaking,” Redwine told Border Report after he crossed back. “Everybody was talking to us about it.”
He said many families that have CBP appointments have decided not to leave their children but don’t know when they’ll get appointments together.
“A lot of people have appointments to cross but they don’t have appointments for their kids and instead of not letting the kid cross, they’re not going to the appointment and trying again,” Redwine said.
Redwine says he spoke with an 18-year-old mother who stayed in Matamoros with her child while her husband crossed into Brownsville for the interview with CBP.
Children who cross into the United States unaccompanied are taken into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Orta, who is based in Brownsville, says she has worked with families who have had to wait for months, and even years, to see their children again. That is because background checks must be done before the children are released to family in the United States, or to the parents who sometimes take years to legally cross the border.
“Many folks don’t understand how the ORR process works, which is the process of unaccompanied children,” she said. “They believe that when you let the children cross first as unaccompanied within 24 hours gonna be back with the parents once the parents crossed. That is not how the process works. It’s it can be up to months long, sometimes years long, usually weeks, but it’s very dependent upon the circumstances of that family.”
In January, CBP began requiring all asylum-seekers to fill out the CBP One app to request an asylum interview at a U.S. port of entry on the Southwest border.
Title 42 still remains in effect, which prevents most migrants from requesting asylum at the U.S. border, but CBP does consider vulnerable populations for asylum.
Orta says the new app has caused a lot of confusion among the migrants, many of whom lack reliable WiFi and Internet services in Mexico, and who fill out the app without legal help.
She says the app only allows one appointment per person. And if a head of household receives an appointment, say in Brownsville, she says there is no option on the app to request a second appointment for a child. They must start over and fill out another form. By the time they have all the information entered, then “appointments are usually all filled then “every slot is full,” she said.
“This isn’t like Ticketmaster, where you say, ‘I want five tickets,'” Orta said. “Quite the opposite, you have to submit all of your information first. And then you click the button, and it will tell you if there’s a spot available for your group. Unfortunately, since the very first week of this process, I have personally not heard of anyone getting an appointment for more than one person.”
Orta says many families are given appointments in different border towns, like San Diego, and then have to decide whether to split up for appointments, or stay and try to get one altogether.
Border Report reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to ask if they have changed enforcement procedures toward children, but our questions have yet to be answered. This story will be updated if information is received.
The U.S. Department of Human Services, which runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement that houses unaccompanied migrant children, and DHS on Thursday reported there were 306 unaccompanied children put in CBP custody on Wednesday, not including Mexican nationals. CBP had 405 children in their care.
HHS reported 7,798 children in the agency’s custody and 232 children discharged on Wednesday.