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Parents of 545 children separated at the US border can’t be found

By Yair Oded

Oct 30, 2020

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In 2018, the world shuddered as reports about the US government tearing migrant children from their parents’ arms and detaining them separately made headlines. A visceral public backlash had ultimately resulted in the reversal of the notorious ‘zero tolerance’ policy and a federal judge from California ordering the government to reunite the families. The damage had been done but perhaps things could be fixed.

A later admission by the government, however, revealed that the number of separated migrant families had been far greater than initially perceived and that more than 1,000 additional families had been separated under a 2017 pilot programme. Nearly three years later, the deported parents of 545 of these children have yet to be located.

The 2017 pilot programme was a covert attempt by the US government to deter migrants from crossing the border into the US without authorisation by separating parents from their children upon being caught by Border Patrol. The programme had only become known in 2019, when a report by the Health and Human Services Department of the Inspector General indicated that more than 1,000 parents were separated from their children in 2017, before the official adoption of the 2018 ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

The pilot programme had been conceived and advocated for by Stephen Miller, the president’s notoriously anti-immigration adviser, as well as top Justice Department officials including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, both of whom had pressed for children to be separated from parents regardless of how young they were. Documents now reveal that 60 of the children separated under the pilot programme were under the age of 5.

When the 2018 ruling ordering to reunite the families separated under the zero tolerance policy had been rendered, an estimated two-thirds of parents separated under the pilot programme had already been deported to their countries of origin in Central America. And by the time the 2019 report had exposed the previously undisclosed pilot programme, precious time had already been lost.

“The fact that they kept the names from the court, from us, from the public, was astounding […] We could have been searching for them this whole time,” Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who is among those leading the case against the government, told The New York Times.

Due to the fact that the programme was kept under wraps and had not even been revealed to some key immigration enforcement agencies, record keeping of the separated families had been lacking or incomplete, which now makes tracking parents down all the more challenging.

The task of locating the parents had been placed entirely on the shoulder of the ACLU and several other NGOs and human rights advocates. “[W]e were tasked with cleaning up the government’s mess,” Cathleen Caron, founder and executive director at Justice in Motion—one of the organisations leading the search—told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The government had initially described this undertaking as too “onerous,” but public backlash over the recent revelation of the lost parents of the 545 kids has encouraged the administration to state that it “could be of some assistance” in the search just hours before the last presidential debate.

Meanwhile, Justice in Motion, aided by other NGOs and volunteers, has been scouring Central America for any leads regarding the deported parents’ whereabouts. The organisation has deployed a network of “defender” lawyers in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua who cooperate with colleagues in the US as the search goes on.

They have been knocking on doors, poring over public records, and contacting local courthouses and radio stations in an attempt to trace the parents. Alas, the insufficient or outdated contact information at their disposal, combined with the fact that many parents had fled their home countries due to threats to their lives and had to go into hiding and cover their tracks upon deportation, make the task of finding them incredibly difficult.

Even in instances where parents were successfully located, the road to reunification with their kids has been riddled with hurdles. With the exception of nine cases, the US government has refused to allow the parents to return to the country in order to access their children and apply for asylum. In many cases, parents who had been found were forced to make the gut-wrenching choice between reuniting with their kids and guaranteeing their safety, which often entails having them remain in the US.

Such was the case of a Honduran woman named Juana, who was separated from her four young girls upon crossing the border into the US as part of the pilot programme, and later on shared her experience with The New York Times. After she was deported back to Honduras, Juana (who preferred not to disclose her last name) went into hiding at a shelter for victimised migrants. Making what she describes as one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make, Juana chose not to have her girls sent back to Honduras when she was contacted by the US government. “I’m not safe […] I’m in a shelter. I don’t go out at all,” she told The Times. “[The girls] cry when we talk on the phone. They say they miss me, that they want us to be back together again […] Girls need their mother.”

As stated by Justice in Motion’s Cathleen Caron, despite the relentless campaign underway by NGOs, it is possible that many of these kids will never be reunited with their parents. “[T]he separations were categorically and intentionally cruel. When the government did it, they had no plan or intention to reunite these families,” she said.

In the meantime, the children suffer irreparable damage and trauma that will scar them for the rest of their lives. “What these children went through has been now categorised as government-sanctioned child abuse by the American Academy of Pedeatrics, as ‘torture’ by Physicians for Human Rights,” said Jacob Soboroff, a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC and author of the New York Times bestseller Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.

The damage inflicted by this policy extends far beyond the children, however, and devastates entire communities. “This has a really broad-reaching impact on societies,” said Caron. “The ones that are back in the countries of origin, there’s not much of a support network to support these traumatized families, to bring them to healing. The [US] government is absolutely responsible for that healing,” she added. “They should pay for it.”

Clearly, the government, particularly in its present incarnation, will not be compelled to make amends on its own. Only a determined public demand for justice for migrants will lead to meaningful, tangible action by the authorities. But such a backlash could only be effective and consistent if it is predicated on a deep and genuine understanding that our fates are intertwined, and that crises that may appear at first glance to be divorced from our realities, have, in fact, great bearing on the entire global community.