Despite a federal judge’s order that the government reunite families who had been separated at the United States-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “no tolerance” migration policy, the parents of 545 children still have not been found.
According to a court document filed on Tuesday by the US Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the children were separated between July 1, 2017, and June 26, 2018, when a federal judge in San Diego ordered that children in government custody be reunited with their parents.
Children from that period are difficult to find because the government had inadequate tracking systems. Representatives from rights groups have been searching for parents by going door to door.
Justice in Motion, a New York-based non-profit organisation that has been assisting the ACLU to locate parents, say it suspended the search in March at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but it now has 21 team members on the ground who have been physically searching for the separated parents in Mexico and Central America.
“The Justice in Motion team take the often inaccurate and inadequate information that’s been provided by the government and do in-person physical searches to find the parents in their local communities,” Nan Schivone, the legal director at Justice in Motion, told Al Jazeera.
More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents in June 2018 when US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered an end to the practice under a “zero-tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute every adult who entered the country illegally from Mexico. The administration sparked an international outcry when parents could not find their children.
While those families were reunited under court order, authorities later discovered that up to 1,556 children were separated under the policy going back to the summer of 2017, including hundreds during an initial run at family separation in El Paso, Texas, from July to November 2017, that was not publicly disclosed at the time.
The ACLU, which sued over the practice, said a court-appointed steering committee located the parents of 485 children, up 47 from August. That leaves 545 still unaccounted for among the 1,030 children for whom the steering committee had telephone numbers from US authorities.
About two-thirds of parents of those 545 children are believed to be in their countries of origin. But once located, Schivone says, many of the parents have a “glaring trust deficit” with anyone claiming to help them locate their children.
“The US government treated them horribly and then deported them without their kids,” Schivone said. “Many of the deported parents who are still separated, once we found them, in explaining our role in helping to reunite them, it’s hard for them to believe that anyone in the US is willing to help.”
The steering committee has also promoted toll-free phone numbers in Spanish to reach families.
The judge has scheduled a hearing on Thursday to discuss the status of reunification efforts.
“We are committed to seeing this through, to continue the searches in the way we have in the past,” Schivone said, “and we are enraged that we are in this situation three years later.”