WASHINGTON — Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families who were separated by the Trump administration say that they have yet to track down the parents of 545 children and that about two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to a filing Tuesday from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Trump administration instituted a "zero tolerance" policy in 2018 that separated migrant children and parents at the southern U.S. border. The administration later confirmed that it had actually begun separating families in 2017 along some parts of the border under a pilot program. The ACLU and other pro-bono law firms were tasked with finding the members of families separated during the pilot program.
Unlike the 2,800 families separated under zero tolerance in 2018, most of whom remained in custody when the policy was ended by executive order, many of the more than 1,000 parents separated from their children under the pilot program had already been deported before a federal judge in California ordered that they be found.
"It is critical to find out as much as possible about who was responsible for this horrific practice while not losing sight of the fact that hundreds of families have still not been found and remain separated," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "There is so much more work to be done to find these families.
"People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can't give an answer. I just don't know," Gelernt said. "But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes. The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children, who remain here with foster families or distant relatives."
The ACLU and other organizations that are part of a court-appointed "steering committee" learned that more than 1,000 families were separated in 2017 based on data provided by the Department of Homeland Security. Of those, the committee has been able to contact the parents of more than 550 children and believes about 25 of them may have a chance to come back to the U.S. for reunification.
Gelernt said some of the families that have been contacted have elected to keep their children in the U.S. with family members or sponsors "due to fear of what will happen to their child if they return" to their home countries.
The group Justice in Motion is physically searching for the separated parents in Mexico and Central America. "While we have already located many deported parents, there are hundreds more who we are still trying to reach," the group said in a statement. "It's an arduous and time-consuming process on a good day. During the pandemic, our team of human rights defenders is taking special measures to protect their own security and safety, as well as that of the parents and their communities."
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A separate court order directed that the Trump administration reunite families separated under zero tolerance in 2018.
In a statement, the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency responsible for providing care to the migrant children, said, "All of the 545 minors referenced were appropriately discharged from [the Office of Refugee Resettlement's] unaccompanied alien children program prior to June 23, 2018. [HHS] has already provided relevant information requested by the court."
Via Twitter, a DHS spokesperson said, “This narrative has been dispelled. In the current litigation, for example, out of the parents of 485 children whom Plaintiffs’ counsel has been able to contact, they've yet to identify a single family that wants their child reunited with them in their country of origin.”
Asked about the report, White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern said, that many of the parents “have declined to accept their children back...It's not for lack of effort on the administration’s part."
Responding to the administration’s statements, the ACLU’s Gelernt said, “First, we have not even found these 545 parents so neither we nor certainly the administration can know whether they want to be reunited.”
“Second, in the past there have certainly have been parents who have made the agonizing decision to leave the child in the U.S. because of the danger the child would face upon return. The humane and simple solution is for the Trump administration to allow the parents to return to the U.S. to reunite with their children but the administration is not allowing that.“