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'Just Babies at the Time': ACLU Says It Can't Find Parents of Over 500 Children Separated From Families by Trump

"We will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes."

A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to locate members of families separated in 2017 during a clampdown along the U.S.-Mexico border reported Tuesday night that they have yet to find the parents of 545 migrant children, according to a new court filing by the ACLU, prompting renewed denunciations of President Donald Trump's cruel immigration policies. 

"This isn't an unintended consequence, this is the predictable outcome of an incompetent administration that thought ripping families apart would send a message."
—Rep. Gregory Meeks

The filing (pdf) says that roughly two-thirds of the missing parents are believed to be in their Central American countries of origin after having been deported without their children, who remain in the U.S. with foster families or distant relatives. 

"People are constantly asking me when we will find all the families and I unfortunately do not know," attorney Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, told BuzzFeed News. "The numbers tell one story, but each individual child has his or her own story with its own human dimension."

According to BuzzFeed News:

In 2018, the Trump administration systematically separated thousands of children from their parents under a so-called "zero tolerance policy" in which parents were sent to federal prison before going to court on charges of entering the U.S. without authorization. Because children can't be sent to federal prison with their parents, the government separated them, listed them as unaccompanied minors, and transferred them to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

It was later revealed and confirmed that the White House had actually begun separating families in 2017 under a pilot program.

The ACLU found that between 2017 and 2018, the Trump administration separated at least 4,200 migrant children from their guardians and deported hundreds of parents without their kids, often prior to collecting adequate contact information. 

NBC News noted that "the ACLU and other pro-bono law firms were tasked with finding the members of families separated during the 2017 pilot program," while "a separate court order directed that the Trump administration reunite families separated under zero tolerance in 2018."

NBC News continued:

Unlike the 2,800 families separated under zero tolerance in 2018, most of whom remained in custody when the policy was ended by executive order, many of the more than 1,000 parents separated from their children in 2017 under the pilot program had already been deported before a federal judge in California ordered that they be found.

Human rights advocates and legal organizations constituting a court-appointed steering committee have "been able to contact the parents of more than 550 children," NBC News reported. Of those, it is predicted that "about 25 of them may have a chance to come back to the U.S. for reunification."

In addition to the obstacles to reunification created by U.S. policy, Gelernt described how some of the parents who have been located have made the difficult decision to keep their children in the U.S. "due to fear of what will happen to their child if they return" to their country of origin. 

In an interview Tuesday night with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, journalist Jacob Soboroff pointed out that the trauma endured by migrant children separated from their parents has been characterized as "government-sanctioned child abuse" by the American Academy of Pediatrics and as "torture" by Physicians for Human Rights. 

"Because of the Trump administration's calculated cruelty, 545 children have not seen their parents since 2017," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) said Wednesday in a statement. "And have no idea if or when they will ever see them again."

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"Evil is too kind a word for what the Trump administration has done here," the legislator said, calling for the passage of the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act she introduced in 2019. 

"Evil is too kind a word for what the Trump administration has done."
—Sen. Patty Murray

"The staggering inhumanity of this president's treatment of these children," Murray added, "belongs in the darkest chapters of our nation's history—the ones we can never forget and must never repeat."

According to Soboroff, the White House pursued family separation even after being warned by some officials in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) that implementing this policy "was going to have the exact consequences we're talking about right now."

"The record-keeping wasn't there, they wouldn't be able to track these families down," he added, "and here we are... almost three years later."

Furthermore, Soboroff noted on social media that "most of these parents, if ever found, will face insurmountable hurdles to reunification with their children in the U.S."

"We know from reporting that the cruelty of this policy was intentional," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday. "This isn't an unintended consequence, this is the predictable outcome of an incompetent administration that thought ripping families apart would send a message."

As Common Dreams detailed earlier this month, a recent report by the inspector general of the DOJ reveals that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein pushed for enforcing Trump's family separation policy, with Sessions saying that "we need to take away the children" to deter asylum seekers from entering the U.S. 

The Center for American Progress on Tuesday released a heart-wrenching video depicting the "horrors of family separation and the lasting harms... [of] inhumane immigration policies."

"There is so much more work to be done," Gelernt said, referring to the hundreds of parents yet to be found. 

"The contact information the government gave us was largely stale, so we've been looking for the families on the ground in Central America," he added, "but because of Covid-19, the on-the ground-search [had] halted."

However, the filing states that "limited physical on-the-ground searches for separated parents has now resumed where possible to do so while protecting the health of personnel working with the steering committee and members of vulnerable communities in separated parents' home countries."

"Some of these children have been separated for years and were just babies at the time," Gelernt said.

"We will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families," he added, "no matter how long it takes."

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