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Experts Have 'No Idea' What End of Family Separation Means for Kids

Molly Adams
A sign reads "No more family separation" at a May Day Workers Strike in Los Angeles in 2017.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz were denied entry into a federal detention facility in Homestead that is housing an estimated 1,000 minors who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border.

Less than 24 hours later, President Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s family separation policy, which — until that point — he had adamantly denied even existed. But, the end of the policy separating children from their families in the future doesn’t necessarily mean the reunification of those already separated families now.

“That was the most disappointing, or maybe one of the most, but disappointing things about the president’s executive order," Sarah Pierce said. "It was completely silent on what’s going to happen to the thousands of children who have already been separated from their parents.”

Pierce is a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. MPI is a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank that compiles migration data, amongst other things. Its compiling of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data is how we know, for example, there are an estimated 27,000 unauthorized immigrants in Lee County and another 22,000 in Collier — or 4 percent and 6 percent of those counties’ general populations.

“We have 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States," Pierce said, "and we don’t know what percentage of them are applying for asylum.”

Pierce said, what they do know is that about 20 percent of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border express fear of returning home. Determining whether or not that fear is credible is how asylum is ultimately granted.

Amien Kacou is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

He said the route to asylee status recently changed under the Trump administration’s self-proclaimed “zero-tolerance policy” for border-crossing offenses.

“It introduces criminal proceedings in all cases, so that people who are seeking asylum are essentially deterred," Kacou said. "So, it’s a very deliberately cruel interpretation of the law.”

But, Pierce didn't see it that way.

"I’m not sure you can say it’s been interpreted differently,” she said.

The "it" she was referring to was the frequently name-dropped and often under-explained Flores settlement.

“The Flores settlement is a 1997 settlement that was the culmination of 10 years of litigation regarding how we treat unaccompanied children," Pierce said.

So, if a minor crosses the border, the United States can’t hold them in the questionable circumstances they had been in some facilities in the ‘90s. In fact, they can’t hold them in any facilities at all for more than 20 or so days, thanks the Flores settlement.

“That certainly applied to unaccompanied minors," Kacou said, 'and in practice, it also applied to their parent.”

There was a "but" coming.

“This administration has been expressing a lot of frustration because, in 2015 and 2016, a series of court decisions came down saying that the Flores settlement applies not only to unaccompanied child migrants," Pierce said, "but also to accompanied children, so children who had arrived in family units at the border.”

So, it wasn't the interpretation of the law that changed.

“What seems to be different about this administration is how they’re expressing the different ways their hands are tied," Pierce said.

Immediately following his signing of the executive order putting a stop to the family separation policy, Trump said the no-tolerance policy still stands.

So, where does that leave the children who have already been separated from their families? Or, the ones coming in? Will they be detained for criminal processing too now?

The resounding answer so far has been:

“I have no idea," Kacou said. "We have no idea.”