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ACLU calls six-month deadline for identifying separated families ‘absolutely critical’

A DHHS inspector general’s report found it likely thousands more children and parents were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border than previously thought. The Trump administration said it needed up to two years to identify the families, but a federal court granted six months instead. The ACLU’s Lee Gelernt tells Yamiche Alcindor why the judge's decision prompts the issue's "most important moment.”

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The separation of migrant parents from their children entering this country from Mexico remains a difficult and emotional issue, one where the president and his administration have been criticized both for the policy and for reunification delays.

    But, as Yamiche Alcindor tells us, a federal judge ordered the government to speed up reunifications.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In January, an inspector general's report found that U.S. officials on the southern border likely separated thousands more children from their parents than had previously been reported.

    In fact, the practice started before the administration announced its zero-tolerance policy in the spring of 2018. The Trump administration suggested it could take up to two years to identify children and their parents.

    But a federal judge in California rejected that yesterday. Instead, he gave the government a six-month deadline to identify all the families.

    Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union is the lead attorney in the lawsuit. He joins us from New York.

    Lee, thanks so much for being here.

    The Trump administration wanted a lot more time to identify these separated families. How important is the judge's decision?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    This is absolutely critical, this ruling.

    The administration was asking for two years just to identify the families that it had separated. I mean, we already know that they separated 3,000. That's been reported. Now there are potentially thousands more.

    These thousands more were separated 10 months ago, at least 10 months ago, maybe far longer. The administration wanted two years just to identify the children, not to actually reunify them, just to identify them.

    Take a child who's 3 years old, now, separated when they were 2, another two years means that three of the five years of their life, they would have been separated from their parents. The judge put his foot down and said, I want this done in six months, and I'm hoping it can actually be done much quicker, and I want production to the ACLU on a rolling basis.

    So we're hoping, within a few weeks, we start seeing lists of families, because, ultimately, we are going to be the ones who have to contact these families, track them down. It's going to be a very, very difficult task. It's going to enormously resource-intensive. It's going to be difficult.

    It may take us beyond the — it may require us to be on the ground in Central America, but we're going to have to do it. I think this is the most important moment in the family separation case and the whole family separation issue since last summer, when we got the court's ruling.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now the government started separating families as early as July 2017, but it really didn't develop a system to track these children until 2018.

    With that in mind, how feasible is it that the government can identify these families in six months?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    I think it's absolutely feasible.

    What's going to be harder is then tracking them down, because the last contact information may be stale now. But the government knows that these families are part of a group of 47,000 children, most of whom actually came here by themselves, but thousands of whom were separated. So they have the files.

    What they were really arguing in the beginning is that they don't even want to track them down because it would be too much of a burden to go through these files. We showed that these 47,000 files can be reviewed very quickly.

    And it's just — you know, it's ultimately a matter of, are you going to prioritize the lives of these children?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The Trump administration hasn't been able to pin down just how many children it's separated from their families.

    With that in mind, how many parents have already possibly been deported without their children?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    I fear that a good portion of them have already been deported without their children. In the first batch of 3,000, we know that nearly 500 were deported without their children. These separations occurred before those 3,000.

    I think it's likely a substantial portion of the parents are sitting overseas without their children now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And children are at the heart of this story. When you think about the trauma that these children who possibly are still separated from their families are enduring, what concerns you most about these children?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    I think there's potentially irreparable permanent damage that they're going to suffer.

    I mean, what the medical community has been saying is that the separation itself causes enormous trauma. But what really potentially causes the permanent trauma is the length of the separation.

    And so now we have these families who have already been separated for 10 months, at least 10 months, and it could go on far longer. And I think the medical community has been warning that we need to find these children and reunite them. And then, once they're reunited, we need to get them medical help, because they're going to be suffering severe trauma.

    Hopefully, it's not permanent.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Severe trauma.

    Well, thank you so much, Lee Gelernt, of the ACLU.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thank you for having me.

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