New Search Begins for Deported Parents of Separated Migrant Children

Nearly 150 Central American migrants seeking political asylum in the United States are detained by the Border Patrol, after entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande, along the border with Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on Dec. 3, 2018.  (Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocates for migrant families who were forcibly separated by the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018 are embarking on a new effort to locate and reunite parents and children after the federal government revealed last month that it had separated 1,556 more children than previously reported.

The search follows a painstaking process, begun in the summer of 2018 and still not complete, to reunify more than 2,800 families that the government initially identified, under orders from a federal judge in San Diego. Locating the new group could be harder, advocates say, because most of the parents have been deported to Central America and the children have been placed with U.S. foster families or other sponsors.

“We may be looking at a months- or years-long process,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents parents in a lawsuit challenging the government's family separation policy. “But, as we told the court, we will not stop until we find every one of these families.”

Public outcry swelled after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April of 2018 that children would be taken away from their parents as part of a "zero tolerance" policy to criminally prosecute all adults who cross the border without authorization.

Two months later, President Trump ordered an end to the practice, and on June 26, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issued an injunction barring border officials from taking kids from their parents, except in rare circumstances. Sabraw ordered the families reunified and the government identified 2,814 affected children. The ACLU then set up a "steering committee" of lawyers and advocates to track down the parents and reconnect them with their kids.

As that process was underway, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that took custody of the children, issued a report in January saying hundreds or thousands more separated kids might have passed through HHS shelters, as much as a year before the controversial practice came to light. Sabraw then ordered the government to review the records of 47,000 unaccompanied minors in HHS custody since July 1, 2017.

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Based on that review, government lawyers began providing the ACLU with lists of names of children who were indeed separated after July 1, 2017, but were no longer in government custody on June 26, 2018, when Sabraw issued his injunction.

Those lists, which the ACLU says total 1,556 children, have now been turned over to the plaintiffs' steering committee, which has 120 lawyers working on the reunification effort. Each lawyer is responsible for tracking down a set of families. But contact information provided by the government may be out-of-date, wrong or incomplete, said Steven Herzog, with the law firm Paul, Weiss, which is leading the endeavor.

“That information dates from when the parents first entered, which means that the information is often two years old," Herzog said. “We are provided with phone numbers for less than 20% of the parents, but for a majority of the children’s sponsors, the adults with whom the child is currently living. Those numbers also are dated, and sometimes are incorrect or do not work.”

Sometimes a child's sponsor can provide a working phone number for a parent, he said. Once the lawyers do make contact with parents, they often need hard-to-find translators who speak indigenous languages, including Mayan languages like Mam and K’iche', which are spoken in parts of Guatemala.

But even with scores of U.S. lawyers on the case, it can be difficult to reach parents. So Herzog and the steering committee have formed a partnership with a network of community-based organizations in Central America. Their outreach workers, known as defenders, are working on the ground to track down families who may have moved to evade the threats that pushed them to try migrating to the U.S. in the first place.

“The work of the defender is to gain the confidence of maybe a neighbor, or a friend, a trusted teacher or a pastor, to get updated contact information and then a lead on where the parent may currently be,” explained Nan Schivone, legal director at Justice in Motion, which helps search for families in Guatemala and Honduras.

That process can be arduous, according to Schivone, who said her advocates have described spending 12 hours walking around villages in search of contact information for a single parent.

The next step, she said, is to build trust with traumatized families, who may not believe they will ever see their children again.

“It can be a real struggle to ensure that the families believe that there can still be a path forward where reunification is even an option,” said Schivone. “Our defenders are reporting that many deported parents are stuck in an emotional limbo, and it's kind of hard for them to even process that they've been contacted and found.”

Despite the challenge, Schivone said she's still hopeful that advocates in the U.S. and Central America will be able to find every parent separated from a child.

“We’re very much in the thick of the very hard work, and so it’s hard to predict how long it will take,” Schivone said. “It is clear that the role that human rights defenders — who are members of the Justice in Motion network — are playing is really critical.”

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