Demonstrators protest at US President Donald Trump's immigration policy outside in Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS
Demonstrators protest at US President Donald Trump's immigration policy outside in Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — The US government said it still had 2,053 children in its custody who were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy, and set out its most detailed plans yet on how it would reunite families.

The department of homeland security said late on Saturday it had a "well-coordinated" process in place — in the face of criticism from lawyers for parents and children who have said they have seen very little evidence of an organised system.

A total of 522 children had already been reunited with parents, the agency added in a factsheet published three days after Trump ended his policy of separating families on the US-Mexico border.

"The US government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families," the department said.

The new details came after more than two months of confusion over how detained migrant parents, who are shuttled from facility to facility run by different government agencies, would ever reunite with their children, who are sent to shelters and foster homes scattered across the country. The factsheet said the Trump administration has a process for how parents would be reunited with their children "for the purposes of removal", or deportation from the US.

Deportation proceedings can take months to complete, and the factsheet did not say whether parents and children would be reunited in the intervening time.

Department of homeland security officials did not immediately respond to questions about the process explained in the factsheet.

The Port Isabel detention centre in Texas will serve as "the primary family reunification and removal centre" for adults in the custody of the government’s immigration law enforcement agency, the statement said.

Many of the parents are planning to claim asylum, lawyers and advocates who have spoken to them said. The factsheet did not say how reunifications would be handled in those cases. The factsheet said children are given the chance to speak with a "vetted parent, guardian or relative" within 24 hours of arriving at a facility run by the department of health and human services — the agency that has custody of the children.

Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, said she and two other lawyers met about 70 detained Central American migrants at Port Isabel on Friday and Saturday. All but one had been separated from their children, she added in an interview before the factsheet was published.

Several migrants had been given a number to call to locate their children, but found their calls would not go through or no one picked up, she said. If they did get someone on the line, they were often told they would be called back, which was useless to them while in a detention centre.

Reuters