More than 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border in the five weeks since the Trump administration announced it was implementing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy—and it’s still not clear how, or when, those children might be reunited with their parents.
On Wednesday, amid mounting pressure to end the policy, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that he said would keep families together, but it’s unclear what will become of the thousands of young people the U.S. government has detained since last month.
Federal officials have few answers.
“We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication,” said Steve Wagner, a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a press call Tuesday. He pointed out that the policy was still “relatively new,” and acknowledged that despite the agency’s preference for reuniting detained children with their parents, officials were also working on “identifying alternative sponsors” if reunification isn’t possible.
John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE, told me it’s entirely possible that children and parents will remain permanently separated. Not only could a parent and a child be deported at different times—sometimes years apart—but the passage of time and complexity of geographic distance make it difficult for parents outside of the United States to locate their children. For families who do eventually find one another, reunification will likely take time. “In a significant number of the cases, the child ends up in foster care,” Sandweg said. “Frankly, it can take weeks for HHS to locate a family member as well. The younger the kid is, the harder that is."