As President Donald Trump traveled to a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota, the federal agencies responsible for implementing the executive order he signed Wednesday to address the family separation crisis at the border were left figuring out what's next.
Although the executive order signing followed days of national outcry over the policy, it was not immediately clear what effect the order would have on new migrant families crossing the border — and federal officials were unclear Wednesday night about whether there would be any changes for those families already separated.
On the question of what happens to the more than 2,000 children already separated from their parent or parents over the past two months, the initial answer from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for "unaccompanied" minors, was that nothing would change immediately.
"For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual," HHS spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe told BuzzFeed News.
Hours later, a more senior spokesperson said in a statement that Wolfe "misspoke earlier regarding the Executive Order signed today by the President." That spokesperson, Brian Marriott, went on to say, "It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter" — while noting that "[r]eunification is always the ultimate goal."
Until reunification efforts are made, however, a majority of the minors will be placed with family members in the US or with other sponsors like friends who are willing to take them in.
While it is possible for a parent who has been prosecuted for illegal entry under the administration’s zero-tolerance policy to be a sponsor for the child once they’re released from immigration custody, that process could take months or years if the parent remains in federal custody until their case is finished.
“Once a parent is prosecuted and the child is placed in ORR custody, ICE will make every effort to reunite the child with the parent once the parent’s immigration case has been adjudicated,” according to a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Our focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors in HHS/ORR funded facilities and reunifying minors with a relative or appropriate sponsor as we have done since HHS inherited the program," Marriott said. "Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs, and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody." (The term "UACs," as used in this statement, would be the "unaccompanied alien children" who have been the central focus of the family separation crisis.)
The family separations came as a result of the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance policy" mandating strict enforcement of immigration laws. Under the policy, all migrants who cross the border illegally are to face criminal prosecution. Because those facing criminal prosecution are held in custody by the US Marshals Service, those parents are separated from their children — who are then reclassified as "unaccompanied alien children" and become the responsibility of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within HHS.
Under Wednesday's executive order, DHS is assigned the responsibility for keeping custody of families while criminal or administrative immigration proceedings are pending.
Trump has said the zero-tolerance policy will continue, however, and an existing court settlement limits federal authority to detain minors. While the executive order directs the attorney general to seek a modification of that settlement — the Flores Settlement Agreement — the court overseeing the case would need to approve the change. In the absence of such a modification (or congressional action), the administration could only detain families together for up to 20 days.
Beyond the legal questions are the practical ones: whether federal facilities were ready to house families. The executive order directs the secretary of defense to provide any existing facilities that could be used to detain families together, and to build more as needed; it also directs other agency heads to make facilities available for families while court cases are pending.
The Pentagon is looking at four US bases for the task: Fort Bliss, Goodfellow Air Force Base and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. It was not immediately clear whether such bases could immediately house families and, if not, when they would be ready to do so.
Flores reported from McAllen, Texas. Zoe Tillman and Vera Bergengruen in Washington contributed to this report.