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Immigrant families still separated face ‘tough choices,’ trauma

According to the latest numbers filed by the Trump administration, 565 children separated from their parents at the U.S. border remain in government custody. Amna Nawaz speaks with Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union about the challenges of finding parents who have left the country and the difficult road that may lie ahead for traumatized children.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to a story we have devoted to a lot of time in recent weeks, the plight of children taken and separated from their parents by U.S. border officials as they try to enter the U.S.

    Once again, Amna Nawaz has the update.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The latest numbers filed yesterday in court by the Trump administration showed that of the 2,654 immigrant children separated from their families at the border, 2,089 are now reunited with their parents or are have been placed with sponsors.

    But 565 other children remain in government custody, 24 of whom are under the age of 5. Also, the parents of 366 of those children have already left or were forced to leave the country.

    Many had crossed the U.S. border illegally and in some cases were seeking asylum.

    Lee Gelernt is the lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the separated families.

    We invited the Department of Health and Human Services to join us for this conversation. They declined our invitation.

    Mr. Gelernt, thank you for being here.

    You heard the numbers we just read off there.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I was listening to the hearing earlier in which you were briefing the judge overseeing reunification efforts.

    Very briefly, are you satisfied with the pace of progress so far?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Generally speaking, we have not — we have not been satisfied.

    Right now, I think it's moving a little quicker than it would have been But — I'm sorry — I'm having trouble with my mic.

    The judge has made clear that the government needs to move quicker, so we're hoping at this point things move quicker. Up until now, things have not moved at a pace we have been satisfied with.

    And, in particular, we believe the government may have been sitting on the phone numbers of these deported parents for weeks or months, and we should have had those much earlier. Hopefully, now that the judge has made it clear that the government can't stall any longer, we will find these parents.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you about the 366 phone numbers and the contacts for those parents who have already been deported. I heard earlier in the hearing the government said that they have contacts for most of those parents. You also then said to the judge you have only been able to contact about 50 of those parents.

    Why is that?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    We have been frantically calling. We are getting inoperative phone numbers from the government in a lot of cases.

    You know, we don't know exactly what's going on, but it appears that a lot of the phone numbers are not operating anymore. There also may be correct phone numbers, but parents have gone into hiding.

    So this is not going to be an easy task, but we will go back to the government and make clear that a lot of these phone numbers don't appear to be operating, and we need additional information to track these parents down.

    We're going to do everything we can to track them down. In addition to calling them, we have people on the ground in Central America looking for them. One way or the other, we just need to find these parents, because, as the federal judge put it, we cannot have these children orphaned because the government separated them unconstitutionally and then sent their parents' home without them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But you did have to file a joint reunification plan. You have been working with the government behind the scenes to develop that and to hone that. It was updated in yesterday's filing.

    I want to focus in on one part of it, though, because I noticed, as part of that outreach effort on the ground, you listed putting a hot line number on U.S. embassies' Web sites, also other outreach like posting notices, advertisements and billboards.

    A lot of people are going to find it hard to believe it has come to this, that in order for a parent to know that they can get their child back, they have to drive by the right billboard at the right time. Is that what it's come to?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Yes, you're absolutely right. I mean, this is a rough situation.

    We're hoping that we will find the parents with other means, phone numbers, addresses, but we don't want to take any chances. So we are going to ask the government to do everything possible, including billboards, including PSAs, including a hot line number.

    But you're absolutely right. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. This is a bad situation. And once we reunite all these children, the truth is that it's not over for these children, because they may be traumatized for the rest of their lives.

    One family I dealt with, the 4-year-old child is now back with his mother after months of separation. But for a while, he was continuously asking his mother, are they going to come and take me away again?

    So we're going to do everything we can. And if it means billboards, we're going to use billboards to get these kids back. But then I think we need to remember that these children need help, and we're hopeful that we can get them trauma help as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Once you have found those parents — and I'm focusing on these, of course, because these are the bulk of the children who remain in custody, their parents being out of the country already.

  • Lee Gelernt:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Once you have found their parents, though, it sounds like parents have to make a choice, right? Either I decide to have my child brought back to me in my country of origin, in which case the child gives up asylum claims in the U.S., or the parent agrees that we will continue to be separated just so my child can continue to have his or claim — his or her claim adjudicated in the United States.

    Is that the choice that these 366 parents will face?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Well, you're absolutely right.

    That's the choice the government wants to put them to. What we said to the federal judge today at the hearing was, we believe that if parents want to come back to the U.S., they should have that right. The judge said he will listen to those arguments. So we will likely go to the government and try and work it out. But if we can't, we may be going back to the judge and explaining why we believe the parents have a right to come back here.

    That goes especially for those parents who may have been misled or coerced into believing that they had to accept removal to their home country without their children if they had any chance of ever seeing their children again. So the parents gave up their own asylum claims, thinking that was the only way they would get their children back.

    To the extent that happen, we think it's unlawful and inhumane, and we will try and get those parents back. But you're absolutely right. There's no guarantee that the judge is going to allow that. And then their parents will be put to that tough choice of either having their children give up their asylum claims or the children staying by themselves.

    And that's going to be a decision the family will have to make and the child will have to make with counsel. But we will have to explain to these families all of the options and the tough choices they may have to make.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tough choices, indeed.

    Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, thank you for your time.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thank you.

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