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Fact sheet: What you should know about zero-tolerance prosecution, family reunification

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(Getty Images)

HOUSTON – The United States government has a process in place to ensure family members know where their children are if they are separated at the border.

The Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services said that as a part of the detention process, illegal immigrants are initially detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection before the children are sent to HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement and the parents are placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Here is a look at the roles certain government agencies play in the process:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As of Monday, officials said 522 unaccompanied immigrant children who were separated from adults as part of the zero-tolerance initiative have been reunited. The reunions of 16 more children who were scheduled to be reunited on June 22 were delayed due to weather affecting travel and we expect they will all be reunited with their parents within the next 24 hours. A small number of children who were separated for reasons other than the policy will remain separated. Officials said this generally only happens if the familial relationship can't be confirmed, the adult poses a threat to the child's safety or the adult is a criminal alien.

When adults complete their criminal proceedings quickly, some children could still be at a United States Border Patrol station. When the parent(s) return from court proceedings, border patrol officials reunite the family and transfer them to ICE custody as a family unit.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

ICE dedicated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center as the primary family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody.

A parent who is ordered to be removed from the country can request that their child accompany them. In the past, officials said, many parents have elected to be removed without their children.

Information is posted in all of ICE's facilities advising detained parents who are trying to find a child who is in custody of HHS to call the Detention Reporting and Information Line for assistance, which is staffed by live operators Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The information provided by the parents is forwarded to HHS for action.

ICE and HHS coordinate reviews of the custodial data to determine where each child is located, verify the parent-child relationship and set up communication.

ICE maintains a publicly available detainee locator.

ICE has completed the following steps toward reunification:

  • Implemented an identification mechanism to ensure on-going tracking of linked family members throughout the detention and removal process.
  • Designated detention locations for separated parents and will enhance current processes to ensure communication with children in HHS custody.
  • Worked closely with foreign consulates to ensure that travel documents are issued for both the parent and child at time of removal.
  • Coordinated with HHS for the reuniting of the child prior to the parents’ departure from the United States.

U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement

Minors go into HHS custody with information provided by DHS regarding how they illegally entered the country and whether or not they were with a parent or adult. There is a central database which HHS and DHS can access and update when a parent(s) or minor(s) location information changes.

As of June 20, HHS has 2,053 separated minors being cared for in HHS funded facilities. The department is also working with partners to provide communication and work towards reuniting every minor and every parent or guardian via the reunification processes.

Currently, only 17 percent of minors in HHS funded facilities were placed there as a result of the recent zero-tolerance enforcement. The remaining 83 percent arrived to the country without a parent or guardian.

Parents or guardians attempting to determine if their child is in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS Administration for Children and Families should contact the ORR National Call Center at 1-800-203-7001, or via email at information@ORRNCC.com. They can also visit this website.

Within 24 hours of arriving at an HHS funded facility, minors are given the opportunity to communicate with a vetted parent, guardian or relative. Every effort is made to ensure minors are able to communicate, either telephonic or video depending on the circumstances, with their parent or guardian at least twice per week. Safety precautions are in place to ensure that an adult wishing to communicate with a minor is in fact that minor’s parent or guardian.

Minors in HHS funded facilities are permitted to call both family members and/or sponsors living in the United States and abroad. Attorneys representing minors have unlimited telephone access and the minor may speak to other appropriate stakeholders, such as their consulate, the case coordinator or child advocate.

Under HHS’s publicly available policy guide for Unaccompanied Alien Children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) releases minors to sponsors in the following order of preference: parent; legal guardian; an adult relative (brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparent or first cousin); an adult individual or entity designated by the parent or legal guardian (through a signed declaration or other document that ORR determines is sufficient to establish the signatory’s parental/guardian relationship); a licensed program willing to accept legal custody; or an adult individual or entity seeking custody when it appears that there is no other likely alternative to long term ORR care and custody.