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Ex-ICE director on family separation: “You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the US”

The Trump administration has said separation is temporary.

Protest Over The Separation Of Incarcerated Immigrant Families And Children Held In El Paso, Texas
A June 19 protest of Trump’s family separation policy outside a detention center in El Paso, Texas.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A former acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement warned that family separation at the border could create “thousands of immigrant orphans in the US.”

John Sandweg, the acting director of ICE from 2013 to 2014 during the Obama administration, said immigration courts handle the cases of adults and children differently, so sometimes parents are deported while their children are left behind in the US — permanently.

“The federal government is not very well equipped to be, for lack of a better term, to be the guardian for thousands of kids,” Sandweg told NBC News. “Why would we intentionally create a crisis where we rip parents away from their children ... when it provides us no value in terms of border security or in terms of deterrence.”

The Trump administration has waffled on its defense of its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which involves prosecuting all those found to be crossing the border illegally. Children are taken away from their parents because they can’t accompany moms or dad to jail. About 2,300 children were taken from their parents between May 5 and June 9.

The separation between parents and kids is not supposed to be permanent, and federal agencies say they have procedures to reunite families.

“They are provided temporary shelter,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a Monday press briefing about children separated from their parents. “[The Department of Health and Human Services] works hard to find a parent, relative, or foster home to care for these children. Parents can still communicate with their children through phone calls and video conferencing. And a parent released from custody can be a sponsor and ask HHS to release the child back into their care.”

That reality is much more complex. As Sandweg pointed out, a parent may be deported back to his or her home country — leaving her child behind in the United States. He or she then must navigate the federal bureaucracy, likely with limited resources and knowledge of the US system.

“You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the US that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted,” Sandweg told NBC News.

Lawsuits and first-person accounts from parents have already indicated that the process of reuniting — or even connecting — parents and children has been fraught for some. As Vox’s Dara Lind noted in her explainer on this crisis:

One flyer given to parents in Texas offered a number to call to locate children. But the number was wrong: Instead of being a number for ORR, it was an ICE tip line. (The flyers had to be corrected in pen.) And even if a parent can call ORR and ORR can identify the child, they might not be able to call the parent back — because immigrants in detention don’t have phone access. (Federal judges sentencing immigrants have urged the government to make sure that they have access to phones so they can relocate their kids.)

The New York Times reported the story of a mother from Guatemala who was separated from her 8-year-old son at the US border; she was sent back to Guatemala, while her son was detained in the US. Another mother from Guatemala is suing the federal government, saying her 7-year-old son was taken from her and officials won’t tell her where he is being held. The woman said she was released from custody last week, but was only able to speak to her son on the phone.