All five of the immigrant children who had been living with strangers in South Carolina after being torn from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border have been reunited with their families.
The children, ages 7 to 11, were brought to the Palmetto State by Lutheran Services Carolinas, a Christian relief organization authorized by the federal government to provide transitional care.
Each of the five reunifications met a federal judge's July 26 deadline for migrant family reunifications.
Staffers from Lutheran Services flew with the children to Texas, said Rebecca Gibson of Lutheran Services Carolina. She coordinated the program. Most of the children were initially taken to Immigration and Custom Enforcement processing centers.
The first child was with Lutheran Services only a short time before being released to an aunt in California. The second flew out to be reunited with her father in Texas on July 18.
Two siblings, both boys ages 7 and 11, were flown to Phoenix on July 22 to be reunited with their mother.
Gibson herself escorted the fifth and final child, a 7-year-old girl, to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, on July 24. The two boarded a commercial flight together out of Columbia and arrived in Texas late Tuesday night.
The girl had not cried during the trip or during her stay in South Carolina, Gibson said. But when she saw her mother, she burst into tears.
"She was really kind of stoic, a brave little girl," Gibson said. "When she saw her mom, she was definitely crying and so was the mom."
The mother was surprised to see her daughter, who had gained weight and become more tan while living in South Carolina, Gibson added.
Though Gibson said she is elated that the children have been reunified, her feelings are mixed.
Most of the families who were detained were going through the asylum process, she said. Three of the families have been released from detention centers and have connected with family members already living in the U.S. They are now awaiting further immigration proceedings and seeking legal counsel.
The other, the mother with two sons, remained in a Family Detention Center in Texas and could be deported. Workers will contact the families in upcoming weeks to get an update on their progress, Gibson said.
Lutheran Services staffers are currently working with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service on a plan to support other separated children and their families who may be relocated in the Carolinas, Gibson added.
"We don't really know what their future is going to hold, we don't know what the legal process is going to look like," she said. "We were hoping all of the children and their families would be released."
There are still 10,000 unaccompanied children in the U.S. who fled their home countries seeking safety, she added. Lutheran Services will continue supporting these children in the future.
On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw in California ordered a halt to most family separations at the United States border and the reunification of families.
The court order specifically required:
- Parents cannot be detained separately from their children. Only if a parent is determined to be unfit will children be detained separately.
- Children under the age of 5 must be reunited with their parents within 14 days (from June 26).
- Children over the age of 5 must be reunited with their parents within 30 days (from June 26).
- Parents must make contact with their children by phone within 10 days (from June 26), if the parent was not already in contact with his or her child.
Trump administration officials struggled to respond to Sabraw’s order while Department of Homeland Security officials repeatedly insisted on legislative action as an appropriate recourse, The Washington Post reported.
Over six weeks in April and May, almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution.
The process moves adults to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and sends many children to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Images of children being held at border facilities in cages and warmed with foil blankets, along with an audio recording of a young child pleading for his "Papa," sparked public outcry nationwide, and Trump signed an order last month to end the policy.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that at the expiration of the court deadline, the Trump administration said it had delivered 1,442 children to parents detained in immigration custody, and was on track to return all of those deemed eligible for reunification.
However, 711 children remained in government shelters because their parents have criminal records, their cases remain under review or the parents are no longer in the United States, officials said. They added that 431 parents of those children have been deported.
The children who were resettled by relief organizations like Lutheran Services Carolinas were among the luckiest, Gibson has said. All had talked to their parents by phone by early July.
For five days a week, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the five received educational and therapy services and went on field trips. On nights and weekends, they stayed with their foster families.
Through donations from the community, Lutheran Services took the five children to the pools and even on a day trip to Charleston, where they swam at Folly Beach and looked at jellyfish in the Charleston Aquarium.