On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union reported on a court filing that there are currently 545 migrant children unable to find their parents. According to their report, the children were separated from their parents at the Southern border of the US by the Trump administration, and about two-thirds of those parents have already been deported to Central America without their children. The lawyers from the ACLU and other pro bono law firms had been tasked by a federal judge with locating the parents of the children.
But this is not news to immigration activists, who estimate that thousands of children have been separated from their parents as part of a Trump-ordered initiative that began in 2017 and 2018. The administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy officially started in 2018 and was protested fiercely. It was ended a couple of months later via an executive order by a federal judge in San Diego. In response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the judge ordered the federal government to report the number of children who had been separated from their parents as part of that policy. But as that research continued, it became clear that separations had begun much earlier than the Trump administration had admitted. Instead of beginning with the implementation of their “zero tolerance” policy in April 2018, they had actually begun in July 2017 as part of a “pilot program.”
Even worse, unlike the majority of parents who had been separated in 2018 and who remained in custody by the time zero tolerance was ended by the executive order, the majority of the more than 1,000 parents separated from their children under that pilot programme had already been deported by the time the federal judge ordered them to be reunited with their children. When the children were separated during the pilot program, the Trump administration kept hardly any records about what happened to their families and had no reunification plans in place.
"When the administration started separating families at the southern U.S. border ... there was no plan to track the families or even reunite them, even though their own experts warned these separations were causing harm," Nan Schivone, the legal director for Justice in Motion, a US-based migrant rights organisation working to track down the deported parents, told KQED. "And here we are three years later, still dealing with the fallout."
And the fallout is immense. For the children who were ripped away from their parents, theirs is an ongoing trauma. When their parents were deported, case workers would have to find a way to break the news to the children, often using maps and puppets to show the children how far it is between the United States and the child’s home country.
“We would have to say, ‘In many, many days you will be reunited with your parent, but we have to do a lot of paperwork,’” Alma Acevedo, who formerly worked for Bethany Christian Services, a foster care and adoption agency that has a federal contract to house immigrant children told the New York Times in 2019. “The kids would… start crying and it wasn’t just tears, it was screams.”
As it stands now, lawyers and advocates say they are committed to continuing to search for the parents for as long as it takes. They are on the ground in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, sometimes with as little information as a name and a last known location, looking for the people whose children remain in the US without them.
"People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can't give an answer. I just don't know," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, told NBC News. "But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes.”
This process has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. The search committee has so far been able to contact the parents of more than 550 children and, according to NBC News, says that about 25 of them may be able to come back to the US for reunification.
Lawyers are also focused on holding the government officials responsible for the policy to account. "It is critical to find out as much as possible about who was responsible for this horrific practice,” Gelernt said.