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World

How Mexico Is Working To Reunite Separated Families

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we've been reporting, President Trump signed an executive order today to halt his administration's policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border. Now, it is not clear from that executive order how families who have already been separated will be reunited. In the last few months, whenever parents were detained, their children went into Health and Human Services shelters. Yesterday, a top HHS official told reporters there's no real system yet to make sure parents and children find each other again.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some nonprofits and lawyers have stepped in to try and make these connections; so have representatives of the countries where these families are coming from. One of those representatives is Reyna Torres Mendivil. She is Mexico's consul general in San Antonio, Texas.

REYNA TORRES MENDIVIL: One of the problems that we have in what's going on is that the U.S. authorities create different files for the children than for the parents. And it's very difficult to follow up in those cases. In this case, what we do is that we activate the 50 consulates that we have in the United States. We have a very large and robust network. And it's because we're in communication permanently with each other that we have been able to locate where parents are and where the children are and then to work with the authorities to make sure that the repatriation process is safe, of course humane and to have them reunified in the process.

CORNISH: So when you get calls to your office, who are these phone calls from? Are they from relatives in Mexico? Are they panicked phone calls from people in U.S. custody?

MENDIVIL: It could be either case. We have instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico to have a permanent presence in the detention centers as well as in the shelters where these kids are taken. So we are constantly there detecting the presence of Mexican nationals. And we of course also receive phone calls from relatives whether in the U.S. and in Mexico.

CORNISH: What are those phone calls like?

MENDIVIL: Well, it's very difficult. I think that the level of anxiety in the parents is of course derived from the separation with their children. They want to know right away where they are and to be able to talk to them. We have managed in the cases that we have had to connect the children with the parents and make sure that they talk to each other and, in the middle of this uncertainty, at least to have the certainty of knowing where they are and to follow up and make sure that are repatriated together.

CORNISH: There are more than a few agencies involved on the U.S. side in this process. And what is it like for you to try and navigate them? Do you have a sense at any given time that everyone knows or is keeping track of where these children end up?

MENDIVIL: Well, of course it's always a challenge because once they are separated, they go through different channels. We have developed a practice throughout the years to have regular meetings with our counterparts, whether it's at the state level, regional offices or a federal level, with Health and Human Services, of course with DHS and any other authority that may be in contact with one of our nationals in this process. So the idea is that when we have a specific case, we can just pick up the phone and make sure that we work with them to guarantee that the process goes in a safe and humane manner.

CORNISH: What is the ultimate goal? I think you mentioned repatriating these families. Does that mean everyone is together back home in Mexico? Does that mean everyone is together awaiting their immigration process in the U.S.?

MENDIVIL: In the situations of families, the ideal would be to prevent the separation and to expedite the processes so they go through the immigration process if they have a right to present their cases before a judge. That would be the ideal situation. Otherwise, what is necessary is to have administrative process in which they have unified files for the entire family, not separate files that make almost impossible. And we know of some cases - not of Mexican nationals but some other cases that could pass perhaps a couple of months before they know where their children are. Even, you know, they are sent back to their countries without knowing exactly the location of their children.

CORNISH: Have you actually been able to unify any of these families?

MENDIVIL: Yes. In all the Mexican nationality cases - there were 20 specific cases that we have had. I think 17 of them are already in Mexico, and the rest are still in the process.

CORNISH: Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendivil - she's consul general of Mexico in San Antonio. She spoke to us from Texas Public Radio. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MENDIVIL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "THE DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.