Almost two years after the Trump administration instituted its cruel “zero tolerance” policy, its consequences are still being felt.
A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released Tuesday found that the parents of 545 children still have not been located. About two-thirds of them were deported to Central America without their children, according to NBC News.
Along with other pro-bono law firms, the ACLU has embarked on the titanic mission of trying to reunite thousands of separated families during the government’s policy pilot program, launched in late 2017.
As NBC explained, unlike the 2,800 families separated under zero tolerance in 2018, most of whom remained in custody when the policy was terminated 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 them 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 has reached out to the parents of more than 550 children, some of whom have chosen 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.”
As Vox explained, the federal government’s pilot program was launched in El Paso, Texas, where criminal charges began to be filed against anyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents with children, regardless of whether or not they intended to apply for asylum in the United States.
While the parents were sent to detention centers awaiting deportation proceedings, their children were sent to separate facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Only in some cases were the children released to other family members or to foster homes.
After the policy was formalized in May 2018, the Donald Trump administration separated at least 5,000 immigrant families before a California federal court ordered a halt to the system and reunited the affected families.
However, Vox continues, the federal government did not link the children to their parents in the databases, and reunification was virtually impossible, especially for children under 5.
A New York Times report exposed the extent of the cruelty behind the policy after five government attorneys at the border backtracked in May 2018 against an order to prosecute all undocumented immigrants, even if it meant separating children from their parents.
According to the media, the lawyers told top Justice Department officials that they were “deeply concerned” about the children’s well-being.
However, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear that President Trump wanted to “take the children” away from the parents.
“We need to take away children,” Sessions told the prosecutors. One added in shorthand: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”
“What has happened is horrific,” says Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, who has been leading the new litigation. “Some of these children were just babies when they were separated. Some of these children may now have been separated for more than half of their lives. Almost their whole life, they have not been with their parents.
The update on reunification efforts was filed ahead of a status conference scheduled for Thursday before U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego.