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Chaos as parents, lawyers try to find separated children

Immigration attorneys say not much has changed for their clients being held in detention centers, despite President Donald Trump signing an executive order to stop separating children from parents illegally crossing the border.

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Faith Karimi (CNN)
(CNN) — Immigration attorneys say not much has changed for their clients being held in detention centers, despite President Donald Trump signing an executive order to stop separating children from parents illegally crossing the border.

Jodi Goodwin, a lawyer from Garlingen, Texas, told CNN on Friday that all 25 of her adult clients have children, but only two have been able to contact them by phone. However, those parents still don't know their children's location, she said.

"I've had clients that have been detained for two and a half weeks and they still don't know where their children are," she said.

The cautious relief that came after Trump's executive order has turned into widespread confusion among detained immigrant parents and their lawyers.

Distraught parents are searching for their children separated from them weeks ago, some as young as 9 months old. Some parents are trying to track them down from immigration detention, where resources and phone calls are limited.

Many of the at least 2,300 children separated from their migrant parents since May are in far-flung shelters and foster homes nationwide -- hundreds of miles away from the southern border.

The process of reuniting parents and children is so chaotic, even immigrant rights organizations and lawyers are frantically working through a maze of unknowns.

'It takes time. It's slow'

When children are separated at the border, they are designated as "unaccompanied alien children" and sent to facilities in states such as Michigan, New York and South Carolina. In the past, more than 100 shelters in 17 states have housed unaccompanied children.

In some cases, federal officials secretly sent the children to city facilities without notifying the local government, as was the case in New York City, making finding them even more complicated.

US officials are not doing much to help reunite families, according to lawyers and immigrants rights group. Trump's executive order does not address the uniting of families already separated -- and existing policies place the onus on parents to find their own children.

But that's a problem for detained parents.

Goodwin said her clients reported they were not given a phone number that immigrant parents are supposed to call if they want information about their children. Her clients who did contact their children got the phone number from another detainee, not somebody working for the detention center, Goodwin said.

"You would think that that information would be posted," she said. "They have told me it's not posted."

"It seems like just a very painful bureaucratic process taking place," said attorney Efrén Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is helping reunite the families.

"It takes time. It's slow. It's not transparent. Even for the attorneys representing these parents," Olivares said, adding that of the 400 separated children his organization has tried to track down, only one has been reunited with a relative in the United States.

CNN visits a shelter

On Friday, federal authorities gave CNN reporter Dianne Gallagher a tour of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for "Unaccompanied Alien Children" in South Florida. She was not allowed to talk to the children or take photos inside.

The shelter, a vacant Job Corps site, has been open and holding minors since March. It houses 1,179 youth -- 792 males and 387 females -- aged 13-17 and is the second-largest shelter in the country. Most of these kids are from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

Children are separated by gender into groups of 12 per dorm room. They wear badges with bar codes on lanyards around their necks. CNN saw adult workers scanning them into each door they entered.

Most children were wearing clothes given to them by Health & Human Services. They get five days worth of clothing -- boys in various shades of blue, girls in pink and red, T-shirts and shorts for the most part.

They walked CNN through the "school" portion of the campus. Gallagher said it looked like a rundown elementary school with large cutouts of Disney princesses and Doc McStuffins on the walls. The students' artwork was displayed on walls, along with American civic posters describing the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.

Art is one of the classes on the schedule, as are math, reading, history, English as second language, physical education and "vocational classes."

There were large, banquet style folding tables and chairs, some mismatched, in most rooms. Gallagher did not see desks or computers -- but that doesn't mean they aren't there. This was a quick tour.

The schedule says the children wake up at 6:30 a.m. and lights go out at 10 p.m. Weekends have religious services and more free time.

Director Leslie Wood said fewer than 70 of the children were separated from their parents at the border due to Trump administration zero tolerance policy. Two days ago, HHS told US Sen. Bill Nelson and local reporters 94 children arrived because of zero tolerance. When asked about the disparity in numbers, Wood said they were reunited.

ICE: Parents decide if children return

Parents decide if they'll get deported with or without their children, Henry Lucero, a field office director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told a roundtable of lawmakers in Weslaco, Texas.

Lucero said a parent in ICE custody is asked if they want to be repatriated with or without their children.

ICE says "a majority" of parents are opting to be deported without their child so the children can go through the immigration system, he said.

If the parent decides to have their child back, the consulate of their origin country will work with ICE to reunite the parents and children while they are still in the United States.

Ryan Patrick, US attorney for Southern District of Texas, said prosecutions for illegal entry are up 266% since zero tolerance went into effect.

Dozens reconnected

Melissa Lopez helps reunite separated immigrant children with their parents, and she's been busy.

Lawyers have sent her organization several requests from distraught parents searching for their children after crossing the border through El Paso.

"They will send us a list and say, 'please check,' " said Lopez, who serves as the executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas.

"It's been kind of crazy the level that it's been happening. Many of the attorneys, we send them information on one child and they're sending us two or three more requests right after that."

So far, they have reconnected between 20 to 30 families over the phone. As facilities reach capacity, children are increasingly being sent to other parts of the country, away from where their parents are detained, Lopez said. There's no easy system to match family members, she said, and phone calls are a crucial, immediate way to reconnect.

"The government provides absolutely no tools to these families to try and reunite them. They separate them and make no sort of effort or feel any sort of responsibility about making sure either party knows where the other is," Lopez said. "It definitely is challenging."

The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides parents with a hotline to call for details on a separated child, and says it will work across agencies to schedule regular phone communication.

"They (parents) have to hope that somebody reaches out to follow up. It's a really inhumane system," Lopez said.

A mother's anguish

Cindy Madrid had heard her daughter's voice in an anguished voice recording released by investigative news nonprofit ProPublica. In it, Alisson can be heard begging for someone to call her aunt as she recites the phone number she memorized during the 17-day journey from their native El Salvador to the US border.

"Imagine, all these days without knowing anything about my daughter, without talking to her, without seeing her. Without any information about anything," Madrid says.

On Friday, Jeff Eller, spokesperson for Southwest Key Programs, said the child heard in the ProPublica audio has communicated directly with her mother. Eller did not identify Madrid by name.

"We can confirm that the child has been assigned a case manager who, on the day she arrived at our shelter, began the process of safe reunification. On the first day, the child spoke to her aunt and has spoken to her since. The child was able to speak with her mother for 30 minutes yesterday. We are continuing to provide this child with excellent care and are advocating for safe reunification on her behalf, as well as continued communication with her mother and aunt."

Hope amid chaos

In Texas, one small shelter has found success reuniting young children with family members.

Three children placed at Catholic Charities Fort Worth were reunited with their relatives this week after getting separated at the border, said Heather Reynolds, the group's executive director.

The reunions provided a much-needed ray of optimism in an otherwise grim situation.

Catholic Charities is currently housing about a dozen children separated from their family members in the weeks after the administration's zero-tolerance policy took effect, Reynolds said. The policy to refer all adults for charges was publicly announced May 7, leading to thousands of child separations.

"They're hurting, they're worried, they're worried about mom and dad," she said. "We have seen an increase in crying, nightmares, things like that."

The children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are between ages 5 and 12. They go to a school on-site for half their day and focus on English and geography lessons.

"We spend a lot of time on geography, on the journey that they've been on and where they will be going to," Reynolds said.

So far, the administration has not provided details on how it plans to unite the children separated from their families.

"It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter," said Brian Marriott, a families' division spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Frustrated with the family separations, a California couple started a Facebook fundraising campaign to reunite children separated from their parents. They've raised $17 million so far, and plan to continue despite Trump's order, which ends the separation of families by detaining parents and children together.

Action in New York

New York City is devising a plan to team attorneys with each parent and child.

Once the city can determine who is in the foster care system, find out where children are and determine their needs, it will offer services, authorities said.

The city needs key information in order to arrange for lawyers to connect with detained parents.

"The federal government hasn't created a system that allows for there to be a clear path forward," said Bitta Mostofi, NYC's commissioner of Immigrant Affairs.

Children in New York separated from their parents due to the zero-tolerance policy are experiencing nightmares, disorientation and anxiety according to Mario Russell, lead attorney for Catholic Charities, which is legally representing some separated children. Russell said no children have begun the reunification process.

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