LOS ANGELES — Under the blistering Texas sun last July, 37 migrant children boarded vans for what was supposed to be a 30-minute ride. At the end of the road from Harlingen to Los Fresnos lay the promise of hugs, kisses and long overdue reunification with their parents, from whom they were taken when the Trump administration began systematically separating migrant families who crossed the border illegally.
But when the children, all between 5 and 12 years old, arrived at Immigration and Customs Enforcement's adults-only Port Isabel Detention Center, rather than seeing their parents, they saw a parking lot full of vans just like theirs, with children from other facilities who, just like them, were waiting to be processed and reunified with their parents.
It was 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 15, 2018.
Not until 39 hours later — after two nights in a van — did the last child step out of a van to be reunited. Most spent at least 23 hours in the vehicles.
'There has to be a better process'
It is one of the little-known stories of the chaotic efforts to reunify children following the end of President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy. NBC News has obtained emails sent between employees of BCFS Heath and Human Services, the government contractor and nonprofit organization responsible for transporting the children, who were frustrated by the lack of preparation by ICE, and senior leadership at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
At 10:30 p.m. local time Sunday, Andrew Carter, the BCFS regional director responsible for the children, e-mailed Kevin Dinnin, the company's president and CEO, to alert him to the fact that the 37 children had been waiting for eight hours and not a single one had been processed for reunification.
"The children were initially taken into the facility, but were then returned to the van as the facility was still working on paperwork," explained Carter. "The children were brought back in later in the evening, but returned to the vans because it was too cold in the facility and they were still not ready to be processed in."
"There has to be a better process. I hope as we move forward there can be adjustments so that we don't put tender age kids in this position," he wrote, referring to children between 5 and 12 years old.
His e-mails set off a chain of correspondence that led to top officials from HHS making phone calls to ICE officials in the middle of the night to try and resolve the situation, according to a BCFS official and a former HHS official with knowledge of the incident.
"DHS [the parent agency of ICE] was clearly not ready to deal with the separations and did not take steps necessary to ensure a speedy reunification with their parents," the official told NBC News. "Had DHS acted differently, the process would have been much smoother and the impact on the kids would have been much less."
The processing was important, the official said, to ensure each child was properly matched with their rightful parent.
Emails previously obtained by NBC News show the Trump administration had no way to link separated children to their parents.
Despite two notifications from HHS that the children would be arriving, ICE officers kept to their regular schedule, clocking out for the day while the parking lot filled with children eager to see their parents again. There was no one present to greet the arriving children and they were not equipped to process them in a parking lot, the BCFS official told NBC News, describing the scene as "hurried disarray."
As day turned to night, BCFS staff quickly realized the vans would not provide adequate shelter for children staying overnight. Additional vans were called in to allow children room to sleep as were blankets and food collected from the HHS facility in Harlingen where the children had previously stayed. ICE told BCFS staff that if the children returned to Harlingen, they would be further delayed in seeing their parents. The children began to sleep in the vans.
At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, 11 hours after arrival, the first child was reunified. By 6:30 a.m. Monday, just minutes before the sun rose, 17 children had been reunified. By 1:30 p.m. Monday, nearly 24 hours after they first pulled into the parking lot, 32 children were reunified. Not until 5:50 a.m. on Tuesday was the final child reunified.
BCFS told NBC News other facilities were also not always prepared to take in children last summer, immediately following a court order to reunify the separated children. As a direct result of this incident, BCFS parked coach buses equipped with a bathroom, TV and air conditioning in the parking lot while reunifying children at Port Isabel, prepared for the worst.
An ICE spokesman called the incident "unusual," telling NBC News "[f]ollowing processing delays on July 15-16, which resulted in some children staying overnight in [Port Isabel], DHS took immediate action to resolve the situation and the delays were resolved. These children have all been reunited with their parents and since then, no child has spent more than a few hours waiting to be reunited with their parents."
'You did the right thing'
By 11 p.m. Sunday night, Carter's initial e-mail had been forwarded by Dinnin to BCFS' executive vice president and chief operating officer, who 10 minutes later passed it along to Jonathan White, who had been selected to oversee HHS's court-ordered reunification of all separated children in custody.
White replied early the following morning, en route to a San Diego courtroom for a status hearing with Judge Sabraw about the status of the reunifications.
"You did the right thing," White wrote to BCFS.
At that status hearing, the 37 children in the parking lot of Port Isabel never came up.
Julia Ainsley reported from Washington, D.C.