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Inside the government’s frantic scramble to locate migrant parents separated from their children

The Trump administration says it needs more time to meet a federal court deadline to reunite immigrant children who were separated under the president’s “zero tolerance” policy. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to explain the numbers of children who are left in government custody and examine the roadblocks ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump administration says it needs more time to meet a deadline set by a federal judge to reunite immigrant families.

    Today's move highlights the difficult task of connecting children with their parents.

    Our Lisa Desjardins has been trying to track the almost 3,000 minors who are still in the government's care.

    And Lisa joins me now.

    So, Lisa, you have this request from the Trump administration. And you have paying attention to a court hearing where this is being heard.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    That court hearing just ended in the last hour or so in Chicago. The judge has not decided whether he will actually move those deadlines for the Trump administration or not. And maybe we will hear that decision next week.

    But, in the meantime, we did hear from the Trump administration's Department of Justice some new details, specifically about the kids under 5 years old. They said there are 101 of those children, and this tell us something about the reunification issues.

    They said 46 of those smallest kids are with — their parent is in ICE detention right now. There are 19 of those kids who is parents have been deported, and then 16 of those children under 5 years old in U.S. custody, parent unknown location.

    So this speaks to the greater problems. DHS and DOJ are saying that they can't locate parents in some cases. They are missing data. We can talk about that more later, but for now the deadline stands and a decision perhaps next week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We now know more about how difficult this reunification process is. The administration says they want them reunified, but making it happen is complicated.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is the issue.

    Essentially, when the families crossed the border, DHS came in and separated parents and children. The parents went into ICE detention into one system. The children went into Health and Human Services, completely different system.

    Now, those agencies are supposed to talk to each other. In many and perhaps most cases, they didn't. We have reports from The New York Times that some of this important data has been deleted or has been lost, and now what we're seeing over this weekend a frantic effort, in fact, call for volunteers to try and go through case-by-case to try and connect these kids with their parents.

    In some cases, we're seeing DNA tests may be the quickest way to establish parenthood. That's if a parent name is known. But for some of these kids, they don't know exactly where the parent is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, this group of separated families that we're talking about, do we know how many, what percentage, proportion of them are people who came here to the U.S. seeking legal asylum?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We don't know the percentage yet.

    The Trump administration, in some instances, has denied that they have separated asylum-seeking families. However, in those legal documents we talked about yesterday — this is the lawsuit on behalf of 17 states and the District of Columbia — there were numerous, numeral legal filings under oath by asylum seekers who said they had been separated from their children.

    I want to read to you from just one. This is an asylum seeker who entered at a legal port of entry wrote — this is a woman named Elizabeth — "I was put in chains on my hands and feet and waist like a criminal. The authorities told me that they were not going to give me asylum and that I wouldn't see my son until he was 18 years old because they were going to put him up for adoption. That scared me a lot."

    This speaks to two things. This is an asylum seeker at a legal port of entry, not the only one in these filings, who was separated, and then detained, shackled. Another such asylum seeker said he was shackled with other men who were stumbling, who were not given bathroom privileges and were urinating on themselves because of treatment.

    These are people who did not commit any crime, but applied for asylum. And then to be told something not true — we don't know, I guess, but to be told that her son would be put for adoption. We see many elements of sort of intimidation for asylum seekers, at least claimed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, Lisa, you have also been talking to people who today critical of this whole process, who have a very different view of whether people should be allowed to come into the country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    I think if you speak to Trump supporters, it's important to note they think the problem here is the way the legal system has been laid out, that the president was choosing to enforce the laws, that he didn't want to separate these families, but if he didn't separate them, he would, in fact, be encouraging more people to cross the border.

    And, of course, liberals disagree with that. The bottom line is that, Judy, these people in U.S. custody, the U.S. has responsibility for their care now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, more excellent reporting. Thank you very much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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