New Tally Totals Almost 5,500 Kids Taken From Parents at the Border

Sindy Ortiz Flores hugs her toddler for the first time in more than a month at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 29, 2019, as cameras surround them. The baby, Grethshell Juliet, spent a month under government custody, after immigration authorities separated her from her father at the border. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Over 1,500 families were forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017. According to a government tally released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union, the new numbers brings the total to almost 5,500 migrant children taken from their parents since July 2017, when the Trump administration began ramping up prosecutions of parents entering the United States unlawfully.

The prosecutions and family separations were part of the Trump administration’s push to deter families — most of them Central American — from seeking refuge in the United States.

“When we launched the lawsuit we thought there were maybe a few hundred families that were separated and we were shocked,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney on the case.

“We had no idea that there would be thousands, that there would be babies and toddlers separated, or that we’d be looking all over the world for these families. This has been far worse than I think anybody could have anticipated,” Lee said.

Under court order, the federal government released a final list Thursday to the ACLU, naming 1,556 additional migrant parents whose children were taken away starting July 1, 2017, but were no longer in government custody on June 26, 2018, when U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issued an injunction ending most separations, and ordering families to be reunited.

Gelernt said this included more than 200 children under the age of 5 — including 71 babies and toddlers, ages 2 or younger — when border agents took them from their mothers or fathers.

“These we’ve just learned about ... are not only very young children but they’ve been separated for possibly two or more years,” he said. “We are desperate to find these children and parents.”

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A committee of immigrant and child welfare advocates is working to find the parents, and has already made more than 4,000 phone calls to track down them down. Some committee members are in Central America attempting to locate parents in person. That effort is likely to ramp up now that the ACLU has a full list of names.

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“We think many if not most [of the children] are still without their parents,” said Gelernt. “We suspect, from what we’ve learned so far, that the majority of parents were deported without their children.”

This group of 1,556 is in addition to 2,814 separated children who were in federal custody at the time of Sabraw's June 2018 injunction and were previously identified in the ACLU’s class action lawsuit, Ms. L. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As a result of the judge's order, the majority of those children were reunited with their parents. However, more than 600 were released to other relatives or sponsors. Two dozen children still remain in government-run shelters.

A third group of children, identified earlier this year, had been taken from their parents after Judge Sabraw blocked family separations. His injunction included a provision that allows Homeland Security officials to separate parents from their children if the parents are considered "unfit" or "a danger to child."

Officials say they do that only rarely. As of this week, Gelernt said they had removed 1,090 children from their parents for such reasons, and every month the government reports additional separations from "unfit" parents.

ACLU attorneys say the government has taken children from their parents based on minor criminal convictions and unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing. They have asked the judge to reassess the original injunction and provide tighter guidelines for when children can be taken away from parents with a criminal history. Sabraw is considering that motion, and has ordered both parties to return to court on Nov. 8.

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