On Tuesday, there was a startling announcement from a group of lawyers who were appointed by a federal judge to identify and reunite migrant kids with their separated parents. According to an ACLU filing, the 545 children have yet to be reunited with the parents they were separated from during President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy along the southern U.S. border. Two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to the filing.
The zero tolerance policy officially began in 2018, but a pilot program quietly kicked off a year earlier, during which over a thousand parents were separated from their children — many of whom were deported. A federal judge in California tasked the ACLU and other pro-bono law firms with reuniting the families. That has proved easier said than done.
“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,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project told NBC News. “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 continued. “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.”
A group called Justice in Motion is on the ground, trying to track down deported parents of separated children. “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.”
In June of last year, the New York Times reported on the difficulty of telling young children their parents had been sent away without them. A reporter spoke with Alma Acevedo, a 24-year-old caseworker who gave a deeply sobering account of how the conversations would go.
“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,’ ” she told me, mimicking the soft voice she would use with an upset child. “The kids would still be like, ‘OK, when am I going?’ They would start crying and it wasn’t just tears, it was screams.”
They used pictures and puppets to illustrate the distance between the United States and countries like Guatemala. And they spoke in intentionally vague terms to avoid making false promises about when the children might be able to see their parents again, after learning the hard way that even those who were barely old enough to talk would latch on to any concrete expectation.