Texas Department of Public Safety separating several fathers from families seeking asylum, immigration attorney says
"It's very unclear to these families what's happening," the attorney said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety arrested several fathers seeking asylum in the United States last month, resulting in them being separated from their families, according to an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Twenty-six fathers have been separated from their families in cases that the legal aid agency is aware of, with many of them being arrested on trespassing charges, Audrey Mulholland, a TRLA attorney, told ABC News. Those arrests occurred between July 10 and 14.
"It's very unclear to these families what's happening and why they are being separated," she said. "The fathers have told me that their children are hanging on to them and crying and really distraught as they see their fathers arrested and taken away from them."
She remarked how similar the clients' accounts were.
When asylum seekers reach the river, Texas DPS officers -- instead of immigration officers -- direct them to a certain point in it, Mulholland said. “They are the ones that [are] kind of directing them to enter up on the riverbank.”
Muholland said asylum seekers have told her the officers first call for single men and women to cross. Both groups are then arrested, she said. Next, the officers call for families to cross, directing men to one side and women and children to the other, Muholland said. The fathers are arrested and then go to state prison, she said.
"I am not entirely sure what they're being advised in that moment as the reason for their arrest,” she said, referring to the separated fathers. "But I do know, the one thing I've heard from all of them that extremely perplexed them was that they were told that they would be reunited with their families later in immigration custody, which just hasn't happened."
Mulholland said she believes there’s a lot of confusion among asylum seekers about where they’re supposed to present themselves. She also claimed that Texas DPS has been making arrests on the premise that the asylum seekers trespassed onto private property.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's press office referred ABC News to Texas DPS.
A Texas DPS spokesperson told ABC News in a statement that, “There have been instances in which DPS has arrested male migrants on state charges who were with their family when the alleged crime occurred. Children and their mothers were never separated, but instead turned over to the US Border Patrol together.”
The news of the policy was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.
In response to the report that Texas troopers have been separating migrant families at the border, a White House spokesperson said in a written statement that “Governor Abbott’s reckless actions continue to undermine our border management plan which has proven effective in decreasing irregular migration to the Southwest Border. As the President has said multiple times, the Trump Administration’s family separation policy was abhorrent and unconscionable. Any effort to replicate that violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security said “This report is troubling and should be thoroughly investigated. We can both enforce our laws and treat human beings with dignity. Unlawful border crossings have gone down since our border enforcement plan went into effect and remain well below the levels seen under the Title 42 public health Order. Managing our border in a safe and humane way works best when we all work together to respect the dignity of every human being and keep our communities safe."
Former Senior DHS Official and ABC News Contributor John Cohen said that during the Trump administration the country learned "family separation practices were highly problematic."
The alleged separation of fathers from families “is beyond disturbing and may result in further civil action by the Department of Justice," Cohen said, adding that a state law enforcement organization “has zero authority to enforce federal immigration laws.”
According to Mulholland, it's difficult to say when the families will be reunited due to the separated members having to go through different proceedings.
The mothers and children who were first processed by border patrol might have been given release documents and referred for an immigration court hearing, she said, while the fathers when they go through immigration custody are being placed in expedited removal.
"We do believe this is a new state sponsored family separation and this is just another kind of step that the state of Texas is taking to try and dissuade desperate asylum seekers,” Mulholland said. "It is just another step in which they are entering kind of the federal immigration enforcement realm.”
ABC News' Luke Barr, Armando García and Benjamin Gittleson contributed to this report.