Already grappling with the trauma of separation from their parents, immigrant toddlers as young as three years of age are being ordered to appear in the court for their deportation proceedings, according to attorneys in Texas, California and Washington, D.C., USA Today reported Thursday.
"We were representing a 3-year-old in court recently who had been separated from the parents. And the child – in the middle of the hearing – started climbing up on the table," said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, according to the USA Today. "It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with these kids."
As part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, over 2,000 children have been separated from their parents, and speculations have been raised that many of these children may end up in the broken U.S. foster care system further complicating things while their family awaits them elsewhere.
“The kids don’t understand the intricacies that are involved with deportation and immigration court,” Toczylowski said. “They do understand that they have been separated from their parents, and the primary goal is to get back with people they love.”
"The parent might be the only one who knows why they fled from the home country, and the child is in a disadvantageous position to defend themselves," she added.
The news also comes at a time when ICE has come under stiff criticism from immigration agents for its harsh treatment of immigrants in the country. Eight people were arrested after the federal officers in riot gear tried to stop the protesters at the ICE headquarters in Portland early Thursday.
The immigration activists, however, heaved a sigh of relief after a federal judge Tuesday night commanded the White House to reunify families within 14 days if the child is under 5 and 30 days if the child is older.
The Justice Department has yet to indicate if it will appeal. Advocates involved in the cases said it was unclear how the judge's order will work in practice, and when and how it could take effect.
"We don’t know how the judge’s order is going to play out reunification of children. What if parents have already been deported?” said Cynthia Milian, a Texas-based attorney at the Powers Law Group, the USA Today reported.
Benard Dreyer, director of the division of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine called the U.S. government's decision of separating children from their parents topped with that the children may need to defend themselves "unconscionable."
"It’s certainly grossly inappropriate," said Dreyer, who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics advocacy committee. "I’m ashamed that we’re doing this."
On Tuesday, the officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, stressed that the agency is working to unify children with either a parent or a sponsor but so far no timeline has been provided.
“We are working across agencies for the reunification of each child with (a) parent or family as soon as that is practical,” Jonathan White, HHS’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a statement.
Children who are being sent in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement are yet to be connected with their families, said Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense. She said that the children arrive at care facilities without a parent’s tracking number, and parents don’t tend to have their kids’ numbers, according to USA Today.
After the children arrive in the care facilities, HHS officials try to find a “sponsor” to care for the child, like a parent, guardian, family member or family friend. Usually, unaccompanied minors, mostly teens, find a sponsor in about a month and a half. But given the current fear surrounding the issue, the advocates are finding it hard to find the sponsors.