President Donald Trump

Chris Kleponis

Unanswered Questions Persist After Trump's Order Halting Migrant Family Separations

June 21, 2018 - 11:41 am

WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- The Trump administration has stopped separating families at the border, but the zero tolerance policy for illegal immigration remains in place.

The only change with the executive order signed Wednesday by President Donald Trump is that detained immigrants will be allowed to stay with their children – but a court order limits that to just 20 days. As CBS News White House Correspondent Steven Portnoy explained, many other questions remain unanswered.

“What happens to the more than 2,300 children who have so far been taken from their parents? No answers on that either,” Portnoy said. “Last night, the administration was giving conflicting statements. At one point, they said that they wouldn’t do anything to reunify those 2,300 kids with their parents. Then, a couple hours later, the Health and Human Services Department said that the initial spokesman who said that misspoke, and that of course, the effort would be on to reunify those children with their relatives or with sponsors.”

But it is not clear when or if the children actually will be reunited with their parents, Portnoy said.

Alex Antonio and his 2-year-old son Jeremy were released after being initially detained for the maximum period of 72 hours. The release came around the same time President Trump signed his executive order, reports CBS News' David Begnaud.

The Honduran man said that while in custody he heard that families were being separated and he feared it would happen to him and Jeremy. For the children already separated from their parents, the executive order may not change anything immediately.

There is currently no system in place to reunite children with parents who are in detention," Open Society Fellow Bob Carey said. He used to run the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Obama administration, the federal agency responsible for caring for the separated children.

Carey says ORR's shelter system was designed for minors who arrived alone at the border, typically adolescent boys, and is not equipped for the influx of infants, toddlers and young children that were separated from their parents under the president's "zero tolerance" policy.

"This is child abuse being perpetrated by a government," Carey said. 

Meanwhile, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said he was concerned about whether parents can track down their kids. "I am also deeply troubled to hear reports that the administration, in its haste to hold innocent children hostage in order to demand funds for a border wall, failed to plan appropriately to reunite these families following their separation," the Democrat said.

Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, among the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., said: "While children will no longer be ripped from the arms of their parents for the sole purpose of deterring immigration, they will go to jail with their parents. Jail is never an appropriate place for a child."

Later Thursday, the U.S. House had been set vote on two competing immigration overhaul measures, and backers of each claim their measure will answer the question of how and whether families will be separated or kept together, Portnoy said. The vote was later postponed.

As to the 20-day limit for detained parents being kept with their children, it dates back to a lengthy set of court rulings on litigation going back to the 1980s.

“A California court in 2016 ruled that children can’t be held in detention even with their parents for more than 20 days. The Republican bills on offer in the House today would essentially do away with that,” Portnoy said. “But it’s not the end of the story. If anything, the president’s order that he signed yesterday is just a short-term fix, and there’s mass confusion within the Trump administration over how it will be applied.”

Portnoy said the only thing that changed with Trump’s signature is a halt to the immediate separation of families.

“So for example, if you are a young mother with an infant child, the direction now is for the Homeland Security Department – if you’re crossing the country illegally and arrested – to hold the mother and the child together while the mother is prosecuted under that misdemeanor charge of improper entry,” Portnoy said. “Ultimately, if found guilty, that mother could face up to six months in jail. The question is what happens to the child, and there’s no answer this morning.”

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)