WASHINGTON — In Thursday night's debate, President Donald Trump said his administration is "working very hard" to reunite migrant parents with 545 children who were separated when they crossed the U.S. border in 2017.
But advocacy groups say that since a federal judge ordered that the families be found more than 18 months ago, the task has largely fallen to them. Those pro bono groups say the Trump administration is only now offering assistance because of the "backlash" over reports about the number of kids still awaiting reunification with their parents.
Hours before the debate, lawyers representing the government in a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of the separated families said they "could certainly be of some assistance" in helping track down the missing parents and children.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said Thursday's offer to help was "a PR move in response to the public's backlash."
"There have never been serious specific offers to help in concrete ways in the past," Gelernt told NBC News.
In 2019, when Judge Dana Sabraw ordered that the parents of the children be tracked down, Justice Department lawyers said the task was "onerous" and estimated it would take one to two years to complete.
Steven Herzog, the lawyer heading the team of law firms and nonprofits working to reunite families, said in Thursday's hearing that "what would be most helpful for us now is updated data and contact information," such as phone numbers and addresses to help track down parents.
It is estimated that two-thirds of the parents who have not been reached have been deported back to Central America.
A White House spokesman noted that Trump signed the executive order ending family separations in 2018.
“Multiple agencies of the United States government have been working with attorneys for these individuals from the beginning to help identify, provide contact information for, and reunite these families, and extensive efforts will continue to complete this mission,” White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern said.