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Why hundreds of migrant children remain separated from their parents

One of the most criticized policies of the Trump administration has been its decision to separate members of families illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. A federal judge put a stop to the practice and ordered the government to reunite families. But hundreds of them remain separated even now, with no prospect of reunion anytime soon. Amna Nawaz talks to the ACLU's Lee Gelernt.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the most criticized policies of the Trump administration is its decision to separate families who were illegally crossing the southern border from Mexico back in 2018.

    A federal judge put a stop to that policy and ordered the administration to reunify families.

    But hundreds of families are still separated, with no likelihood of reunifying any time soon.

    Amna Nawaz has the details.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, what many people don't realize is that, before 2018 and the flurry of coverage as thousands of children were separated from their families at the border, the Trump administration had already run a secret pilot program in 2017, separating many hundreds more.

    A federal judge later ordered the government to provide a list of those names and any documentation it had to a group working to reunite families. But the information they gave was sometimes flawed or incomplete, and many of the parents had already been deported without their kids.

    Yesterday, lawyers told the court that, after searching far and wide, the group still cannot find the parents of 545 separated children. And their search has only become more challenging during the pandemic.

    Lee Gelernt is the principal attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been leading the litigation to reunite these families. And he joins me now.

    Lee, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You and the groups you have been partnering with had already been working to reunite the thousands of kids separated under zero tolerance in 2018. The news broke there had been more kids separated earlier.

    Why has it been much more difficult to reunite those kids with their families?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Yes.

    So, I think a few things happened. The first thing is that, when we got the injunction in court stopping the family separation practice, the government told us and the court that there were 2,800 families that had been separated.

    Only later, because of a watchdog report from HHS, did we find out — and this is about seven months later — that there had been potentially thousands more separated at the beginning of the Trump administration under what you had called the secret pilot program.

    We had to go back to court. The government said they weren't going to give us those names. The judge said, absolutely not, you're giving the ACLU those names. The government then asked for two years to give us the names because they hadn't kept track of the families, and they had to reconstruct everything.

    We finally got all of the information in October of 2019. So, we didn't really get to start in full until the fall of 2019.

    The second problem we hit is that these separations occurred so long ago that the contact information the government gave us was largely stale. So, while we found some families through phone numbers, our partners and I had to look on the ground for families literally town to town in Central America.

    That was time-consuming, dangerous, and expensive. We were, though, making some progress. And then, in March of this year, obviously, COVID hit, and that halted the progress. And we are now only starting up again, with a lot of precautions, looking for the families.

    So, I think all those factors have combined to mean that some children may now have been separated for three years. They may have been toddlers when they were separated now, but separated more than half their lives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How much help are you getting from the Trump administration to reunite those families?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    We're not getting help from the Trump administration.

    Originally, in court, the judge said to the government, you're going to find these families. And the government said, no, we don't think it's our problem, because they have already been deported.

    I then said in court, we, the ACLU, will find them, and we will get volunteers and law firms of partner organizations to create a steering committee. Everyone jumped in. And now it's been a collective effort on behalf of law firms and NGOs to find these children.

    But it has not been the Trump administration. And, in fact, when there are families in the U.S. who have finally been reunited, and they have gone through this horrific situation, you would think the Trump administration would say, OK, we will let them stay.

    But, in fact, what most people don't know is, the Trump administration is trying to deport all of these previously separated families. So, we hope that, if there is a Biden administration, the Biden administration will help us find these families, will bring them to the U.S., and give them status, given what they have — what they have been through.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Lee, I spoke with one of the lawyers who's representing one of the kids here who is trying to be reunited now. He was 9 when he was separated. His dad was deported. His uncle then took him in.

    The uncle was then caught up in an immigration raid, arrested and deported. This boy is now 12 and he's being taken care of by a stranger.

    How unique is that situation in the cases you're seeing?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    That children are ending up with strangers?

    Unfortunately, it's not unique. These children are facing unbelievable battles. It's not just who they're living with, but the trauma they're living with every day, having been separated from their families, especially the young ones.

    When I talk to the families, and they tell me about what their children are going through, it's unbelievable. But it's exactly what the medical community predicted, that these children would feel a sense of vulnerability the rest of their lives, children asking their parents, are people going to come and take me away again in the middle of the night?

    That's the reality. And children are being shuffled from home to home, and the Trump administration is still trying to deport them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lee, finding these parents in other countries, often in remote areas, it is time-intensive. It is harder, as you mentioned, during the pandemic.

    Are you worried, the longer this goes on and the longer it takes, that some of these kids may never be reunited?

  • Lee Gelernt:

    I think that's the right question.

    I am worried, but I am remaining optimistic. I mean, what we have said in court is, we will not stop this search until we have found every last family. I'm worried, but I ultimately believe, hopefully not naively, that we will find every one of these families.

    I think we just — we cannot stop until we have found every one. Otherwise, it would just be a tragedy on top of a tragedy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Lee Gelernt:

    Thanks for having me.

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