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Heller: Undocumented detainees held in Southern Nevada because of Trump zero tolerance policy

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
CongressImmigrationLocal Government

Undocumented detainees are being held in Southern Nevada as a result of President Donald Trump’s now-suspended policy that resulted in children being separated from their parents who illegally cross the border, according to Republican Sen. Dean Heller.

“Some are being held in Southern Nevada and they are, frankly, asking for help,” Heller said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, adding that he “heard from over 3,500 of my constituents from across the state share their concerns about these families that have been separated.”

His office declined to provide any details about who is being held in Nevada, where they are being held and how long they have been there. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t immediately respond to similar questions from The Nevada Independent on Wednesday.

Heller’s statements come a few weeks after a fellow member of the delegation, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, posed questions to federal officials about whether any children separated from their parents are in Nevada.

Although Titus’ staff said the health and human services officials in charge of immigrant children said they had nobody in their custody housed in Nevada, and Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office said Wednesday that it’s not aware of any children being housed in the state, there’s at least one parent known to have been kept in Nevada as a result of Trump’s policy.

One father had been detained in a facility in Southern Nevada, but he has since been moved to Texas to be reunited with his child, according to Laura Barrera, an attorney with the UNLV Immigration Clinic who represented the man, and the office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

He’d spent several months in the Henderson Detention Center, which has a contract to house Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, but was recently transferred to Texas to be reunified with his 5-year old daughter, according to Barrera. The immigration lawyer said it is her understanding that there was more than one detainee parent held in Henderson, but that the clinic had only been contacted by the one father. Cortez Masto’s office said they knew of just the one person.

Barrera said that she hasn’t been able to reach her client since he was transferred to Texas, but was traveling there on Wednesday to help him with the case. One issue was that the cases of the father and his daughter were not administratively linked, but she was able to assist him in finding the girl because he had her birth certificate, the lawyer said.

He had been separated from his daughter after the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” policy under which all those who cross the border illegally, including those seeking asylum, were prosecuted with a crime, which led to their children being taken away. Trump signed an executive order in June designed to end the separation policy.

The government has separated detained fathers from their children even before the zero-tolerance policy, but Barrera said she doesn’t believe he would have ended up in detention if not for the recent policy. Although Barrera declined to offer specifics about the man, including the country he comes from and where his daughter was held while she was separated from her father, she said that her understanding is that he was unable to contact the girl for about two months and they’ve only had one phone call during their separation.

“It’s horrifying to me to think of how many people in the country weren’t able to get a lawyer,” Barrera said in an interview. “I don’t know if he would’ve been able to find her."

Michael Kagan, head of the immigration clinic, added that Cortez Masto’s office had done “extensive” work in trying to reunite the man with his daughter, although he didn’t elaborate beyond that, citing client confidentiality.

Heller, who is in a difficult re-election campaign as the only Republican senator running in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, was speaking in support of GOP-drafted legislation that would allow children to be detained with their families by overturning a court ruling known as the Flores settlement that prevents detaining immigrant children for more than 20 days. The bill would also prioritize family migration cases, and add 225 new immigration judges to help speed the adjudication of those cases.

Nobody “wants to see children separated from their families, period,” Heller said, adding that “while America is a nation of laws, we’re also a nation with heart and Nevadans have a lot of heart.”

Meanwhile, Cortez Masto and Rep. Ruben Kihuen said they were disappointed with the answers they received in a meeting Wednesday with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who claimed the agency was on track to reunite separated families by Thursday as ordered by a federal judge last month.

Both Nevada Democrats, who met with Nielsen along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, were skeptical that DHS would meet the deadline.  

“I seriously doubt it,” Cortez Masto said after the meeting.

According to a court filing Monday, 2,551 children between five and 17 years of age have been separated from their family. Of that figure, 1,634 children are eligible for reunification with their parents.

Democrats have taken issue with the government’s determination that 917 children are ineligible to be reunited with their family. They include 463 parents have already been deported without their children, according to the court filing.

Cortez Masto said that she asked Nielsen what she was doing about those deported parents to which the DHS secretary replied that those parents had voluntarily given up their parental rights.

“That I question,” Cortez Masto said. “I know these parents had no counsel, had a barrier with the language. They thought, I am sure, that they were going to be reunited with their children because I’ve met these parents…and they were willing to do anything to be reunited with their kids.”

Cortez Masto last month traveled to the Port Isabel Service Processing Center on the Texas border with Mexico, where some detainees have been sent.

DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said that the onus is on Congress to fix the immigration law.

“We’re getting conflicting court orders, conflicting policies, which is why the secretary met with members of Congress to get them to do their jobs and fix this problem,” Houlton said.

With regard to the deported parents, he said, “We’re working with the main embassies of the foreign countries to make sure they can be reunified. But I think the main takeaway is that they willfully chose to leave without their children. So, we’ll work with them, but, again, this is a choice that they made.”

Kihuen said he, too, hears from constituents who are concerned about the family separation issue.

“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by where our office does not get a call relating to this issue, of a family member or a relative that they know who has been affected by this issue,” he said after the meeting.

Nielsen did not respond to questions including whether family separation continues in any form at the border, whether the Department of Justice still maintains a zero tolerance policy and whether there has been any harm to children or families at the border, according to Kihuen and other members in the meeting. But she did promise to provide written responses to some questions, though no time frame was established for her to respond.

“For her to come here and spend a whole hour with us without giving us any substantive answers, it’s a concern to me,” Kihuen said.

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