Last July, 37 migrant children between the ages of 5 and 12 boarded vans in Harlingen, Texas, for what was supposed to be a short drive to a nearby detention center, where they would be reunited with their parents, who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, as NBC News reported Monday, they waited, spending an average of 23 hours in the vans.

Emails obtained by NBC between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services and the nonprofit responsible for transporting the children show that the government did not have a clear plan for reunification—despite the Trump administration’s claims of the existence of a central database. As an HHS official explained in one email published by NBC, “We have a list of parent alien numbers but no way to link them to children.”

“The children were initially taken into the facility, but were then returned to the van as the facility was still working on paperwork,” Andrew Carter, regional director of BCFS Health and Human Services, the nonprofit contractor responsible for the children, told NBC. “The children were brought back in later in the evening, but returned to the vans because it was too cold in the facility and they were still not ready to be processed in.”

Emails and phone calls between BCFS, ICE and HHS continued all night, as those responsible attempted to figure out how to reunify the families. According to NBC, HHS sent ICE staff at the detention center two notifications that the children would be coming, and that they were expecting to be reunited with their families.

Despite this, ICE staff worked their regular schedules, leaving the center before the children arrived. As NBC reports, “There was no one present to greet the arriving children and they were not equipped to process them in a parking lot.” A former HHS official with knowledge of the situation described the scene to NBC News as “hurried chaos.”

Because the detention center was deemed too cold for the children, BCFS had to fetch new vans, blankets and food from the children’s initial shelter in Harlington. “DHS was clearly not ready to deal with the separations and did not take steps necessary to ensure a speedy reunification with their parents,” the official told NBC, adding, “Had DHS acted differently, the process would have been much smoother and the impact on the kids would have been much less.”

It took 39 hours for the last child to be reunited with family members.

An ICE spokesperson called the situation “unusual,” emphasizing to NBC News that “since then, no child has spent more than a few hours waiting to be reunited with their parents.”

Under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, nearly 3,000 migrant children were separated from their families before a federal judge in San Diego barred the practice in 2018 and ordered that children be reunited with their families within 30 days.

In May, almost a year later, “as many as 55 children separated last year under zero tolerance are still in Health and Human Services (HHS) custody at shelters around the country,” NBC News reported. And those 55 children were separated before the practice was barred. As USA Today reported last month, despite the court order, at least 389 families have been separated since July 2018, according to an official government count; immigration rights advocates believe the figure may be higher.


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