While some searches have restarted, advocates say this already challenging process has become even more difficult with the coronavirus pandemic. And every minute counts. Anna Vignet/KQED
While some searches have restarted, advocates say this already challenging process has become even more difficult with the coronavirus pandemic. And every minute counts. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Search for Separated Families

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Search for Separated Families

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Dora Melara, 42, has been searching for people she doesn’t know if she’ll find.

She walks through cities and towns in Honduras, sometimes with only a name and a last-known location, searching for parents whose children were taken from them by authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border — and who were returned to their homeland without their kids.

Melara is an attorney working with Justice in Motion — a U.S.-based migrant rights organization — to locate deported parents. With little information to go on, the search is tough. And if she finds the families, sometimes it’s difficult to get them to trust her.

“They think it is impossible to find people who are interested in their story,” she said through a translator. “But our work is to explain to them, and make them understand, that we are here to help them. We are here to help them be in communication with their family.”

Hundreds of Mexican and Central American families remain separated as a result of a Trump administration policy of taking migrant children from their parents that began in the spring of 2017. Advocates say most of these parents came to the U.S. seeking asylum but were denied protection and deprived of their children. Melara is part of an effort that spans the U.S., Mexico and Central America, to locate and reunite these families, many of whom have lost hope of seeing each other again.

With the spread of the pandemic, however, the effort was put on hold for months due to travel restrictions in Central America.

Now, while Justice in Motion has restarted some searches on a case-by-case basis, advocates say this already challenging process has become even more difficult.

The Ongoing Search

In June 2018, when the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy came to light, a federal judge in San Diego ordered a halt to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection practice of separating kids from parents at the border and sending them to shelters for "unaccompanied children" or to foster families.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the federal government to report how many children had been separated beginning in April 2018, as part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the parents. After a month-long tally, the government counted 2,654 children. And, after further revisions in early 2019, that number increased to 2,814.

More on Family Separations

However, in January 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General issued a report charging that the separations had begun earlier, and the government had not kept good track of where the children and parents ended up.

Sabraw then ordered the government officials to research further, and in October 2019, they reported that an additional 1,556 children had been separated between July 1, 2017 — when separations reportedly began in El Paso — and June 25, 2018, the day before the judge’s original injunction.

The Trump administration kept few records of where these families went and how to get ahold of them. And advocates say the last known contact information for many is outdated or inaccurate. Nearly all of the 2,814 children from the original 2018 tally have been reunited with their parents. But as for the search for the other 1,556 children, advocates had reached the parents of 438 kids by phone or mail as of mid-August, and more than 100 others were located through outreach in Central America.

On October 20, a joint status report filed in court said the steering committee still cannot find the separated parents of 545 children.

"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," said Nan Schivone, the legal director for Justice in Motion. "And here we are three years later, still dealing with the fallout."

The court authorized a committee of lawyers and advocates, overseen by plaintiffs’ attorneys, to track down current addresses and phone numbers for the parents in order to arrange to reunite them with their children.

When all other efforts fail, it's up to a network of “defenders” — including local human rights lawyers and the staff of nonprofit organizations coordinated by Justice in Motion — to physically search on the ground in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

The defenders, including Dora Melara, walk through towns seeking out families. They talk to neighbors and relatives, trying to track down a solid lead on where a person, or family, went.

“What we're talking about are hundreds of children (whose) families still haven't been found,” said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who is lead counsel representing separated parents in the ongoing lawsuit against the Trump administration. “We don't know whether they are reunited. We don't know their situation. We're now in 2020 and this is still going on.”

The Pandemic

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, Justice in Motion's defenders were making slow but steady progress in the search. They’d been able to locate the parents of 135 children. In January, nine parents who had been deported were able to return to the U.S. to reunite with their children and pursue their asylum claims.

"That was such a hard-fought step toward justice, made possible only because of a massive and complicated cross-border effort," Schivone said.

But in March, when the pandemic hit, all on-the-ground operations in Central America stopped.

“We had to completely stop because of the pandemic,” Melara said. “The government started the rules, and we can no longer go out. There was a strict curfew.”

While defenders were able to connect with some people online, Melara said it’s much harder to build trust with traumatized parents digitally than it is in person.

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“We do not use the online research method as much because people do not trust us when we first meet,” she said. “They can't believe there are organizations like ours. So, in person is better, because we introduce ourselves and they can see us eye to eye.”

In August, Honduras lifted some travel restrictions, Schivone said, and searches resumed. But the new rules have also created new challenges.

For example, people in Honduras can go out for shopping and essential activities based on how the last digit of their personal ID number corresponds to a government chart. So, when Melara’s number comes up, she can travel to where the families might be. But the window is short — just 14 hours. And she can’t stay anywhere overnight.

“We are limited by the time we have to do our searches, we can't stay late, we cannot stay in a hotel. Because the next day, your ID is not valid to be out anymore,” she explained. “It has been very limiting.”

And in these searches, time is everything, because every day that parents and children are separated from each other contributes to immense, and potentially irreparable harm, mental health experts say.

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Every Minute Counts

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2019 that family separation can cause toxic stress in children and can damage their developing brains.

"Every minute that they are not with their parents, thinking about their parents and dealing with that anxiety compounds the trauma that those children are suffering," said the ACLU's Gelernt. "For all those reasons, this is a very unfortunate situation. We obviously should never have been in this situation. Now we are, and COVID is making things worse for everyone."

Phone numbers have been set up for separated parents, or their relatives, to be connected to lawyers and advocates. (Courtesy of KIND)

In February 2020, the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights published a study on parents who’d been separated from their children by the Trump administration. They found that parents often experienced “pervasive symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma,” and that most people in their study met the conditions for “at least one mental health condition,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.

In an attempt to speed up the process of reuniting families, the plaintiffs’ committee has set up toll-free numbers for separated parents or their relatives to be connected with lawyers and advocates. The phone numbers work in the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In addition to reunification, some families may also be eligible to apply for asylum in another country, or reapply in the U.S., according to officials with the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which is part of the search effort.

But it’s hard for some parents, who have lived for months or years without their children, to believe there could be any resolution.

"As more time goes on, parents ... have to suspend belief and really have a lot of faith that our defender is actually connected to a process in the U.S. that might provide them some relief," Schivone said.

‘It Is Our Job’

The last parent that Melara was able to find told her he hadn’t talked to his daughter in six months. He was excited and happy to finally be able to see her over video chat, a call that Melara helped facilitate.

“His first reaction was to say ‘Oh you've grown!’ ” she remembered. “It was very touching.”

Another parent she located said he was just happy that someone was interested in what he’d been through.

“Many times, all they want is to be heard,” Melara said, “and they felt grateful that there are people who are willing to listen and to learn what they lived through when they had lost all hope.”

Despite the difficulties of the search, Melara said she feels a responsibility to keep going.

“It is our job to find a communication channel from parents to their children and for them to have the opportunity to reunite one day,” she said. “(These) parents and children are going to live with that trauma all of their lives.”

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