Authorities have not been able to reunite 666 families who were separated at the border—three years after they were separated. And a new report shows that the administration knew this was a likely outcome before instituting the policy.

By Libby Ryan
Updated October 29, 2020
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Even before the implementation of the "zero tolerance" policy of separating migrant parents from their children at the border, Trump administration officials knew that it might mean they were never reunited, according to a new report by the House Judiciary Committee.

In 2017, the administration began a pilot program where children were taken away from their parents and detained, while the parents were often deported.

"Despite full knowledge that hundreds of children would likely be lost to their families forever, the Administration chose to expand the pilot program into a permanent nationwide policy," the report reads.

Hundreds of migrant children are still separated from their parents, even though a federal judge ordered families to be reunited in 2018. And a new court filing from the American Civil Liberties Union shows that authorities have not been able to find the parents of hundreds of kids.

As of this week, a court-appointed committee has tried to contact the families of more than 1,000 children who were not yet reunited with their families. They could not find the parents of 666 children (a number higher than previously thought), some of whom were babies at the time that they were separated and have been apart from their parents for most of their lives.

About two-thirds of those parents have likely been deported back to their home countries without their children, according to the court filing, and those children have been placed with other relatives or foster families inside the United States.

Credit: Getty Images

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that a new investigation by the Justice Department revealed that attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, specifically intended for families to be separated under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

“We need to take away children,” Sessions said, according to the New York Times reporting. Rod Rosenstein, who at the time was the deputy attorney general, said that it did not matter how young the children were.

The Trump administration’s separation of families at the border began in spring 2018, when the "zero tolerance" policy began. Zero tolerance meant that migrant families would be separated in order to deter future immigrants from crossing the border. In total during the 2017 pilot program and 2018 policy, according to the ACLU, at least 4,300 undocumented children were separated by the Department of Homeland Security.

In June 2018, a federal judge ordered that immigration authorities not only stop separating families but also said they must reunite separated children with their parents within 30 days.

Two years later, many of these children are still separated from their families—and many do not even know where their parents are.

"Even before Covid, it was hard enough finding these families but we will not stop until we've found every one," ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told CNN. But that is not a simple endeavor.

It’s been three years since many of the still-separated families were together, making it difficult to trace the parents’ whereabouts after they were deported or detained. According to the Washington Post in October, lawyers working on the cases say that they are actively trying to reach 262 parents but that 283 of the parents have not been located at all. And the latest numbers mean there are even more parents to locate.

President Donald Trump's family separation policy was recently a talking point at the final presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump claimed that the children were "well taken care of" in detention facilities but numerous reports detail horrific conditions in the facilities such as lack of adult supervision for infants, cold rooms with no blankets, and few toiletries. The president also blamed the Obama administration for separating children, even though the policy began in 2018—two years after Obama left office. While the Obama administration did detain migrant families at the border in detention facilities, they did not intentionally separate parents from their children as a scare tactic to deter future immigration.

How to Help

Although the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for advocates and lawyers to travel to countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico where parents may have been sent after their deportations, organizations such as the ACLU and Justice in Motion are still working on the ground where lockdowns and public safety measures allow. You can donate to the organization to support these ongoing efforts now and as travel becomes more possible.

You can also donate to the ACLU to support their work in court. And with the election in less than two weeks, make sure to research where your government representatives stand on immigration policy and make your voice heard by voting.

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