WASHINGTON — Legal advocates tasked by a federal judge with helping to find migrant families separated at the U.S. border in 2017 and 2018 say that after months of pleas, the government last week handed over new data that could be critical to helping them find the families.
In a federal court filing in California late Wednesday, the lawyers said Justice Department data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which includes information for parents and children in immigration court proceedings, was released to them last week.
"Among other things, the information includes phone numbers that had not previously been known," the lawyers said in the filing.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered last year that a steering committee of legal groups and nonprofits find missing families after the Trump administration separated parents and children crossing the border illegally in 2017 and 2018 but failed to keep track of the families it had separated.
NBC News reported last month that the parents of 666 migrant children had yet to be found by pro bono lawyers, making the path to reunification difficult for many. The filing Wednesday said some families have been identified since then, bringing the number of parents whose whereabouts are still unknown to 628.
With the new data, which lawyers said they have not had adequate time to review, the number could be reduced further.
"We have been repeatedly asking the Trump administration for any additional data they might have to help locate the families and are only finally getting these new phone numbers and addresses," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "Unfortunately, it took the issue reaching the level of a presidential debate to move them to give us this data."
"Everyone's been asking whether the Trump administration has been helping to find these families. Not only have they not been helping, but they have been withholding this data forever," Gelernt said.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will set up a task force to find and reunite separated families, although his transition team has not yet committed to give parents who have been deported the option to come to the United States to reunite with their children.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review said the office does not comment on pending litigation.