Hidden behind the dull silver sheen of chain-link fences and concrete walls are the gut-wrenching, shallow-breathed screams of children. They watch with tear-blurred eyes as their parents are pulled away from them by Immigration and Border Control officers, unsure of what comes next or whether they will ever see, or hear, or hold their mothers and fathers again.
This was a common scene all along the U.S.’ southern border as the Trump administration’s “family separation policy,” part of its larger “zero tolerance” approach to deter undocumented immigration and encourage tougher immigration legislation, kicked into overdrive two years ago.
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, attorneys appointed by a federal judge to identify and reunite migrant families separated by the Trump policy said they have yet to track down the parents of 545 children—about 60 of them taken from their families under the age of 5. About two-thirds of those parents were deported back to Central America without their children, according to a court filing from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The children were separated between July 1, 2017, and June 2018. More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents in June 2018 alone, the month U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered an end to the practice of criminally prosecuting every adult who entered the country without papers from Mexico.
The moral depravity found within the mind and heart of the current president, and his administration writ large, is truly unparalleled in our modern age. So let’s not mince words: Donald Trump forcefully kidnapped children. And the hideous truth of how his policies unfolded is still coming to light.
Trump officially announced his “zero tolerance” approach via then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018, but it was later confirmed that this horrific practice had actually started, unofficially, in 2017 along some parts of the border under a pilot program. In that single year, the Department of Homeland Security estimated it separated 3,014 children from their families while the policy was in effect.
A Nov. 25, 2019, audit by the DHS Office of Inspector General found that DHS “did not have the information technology system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy.” Essentially, the government was pulling kids and parents apart without the ability to keep track of where everyone was being sent.
The actual number of children ripped away from their families will never be confirmed, even with the policy ending by presidential executive order in June 2018.
“It is critical to find out as much as possible about who was responsible for this horrific practice while not losing sight of the fact that hundreds of families have still not been found and remain separated,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “There is so much more work to be done to find these families.
“People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer. I just don’t know,” Gelernt said. “But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes. The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children, who remain here with foster families or distant relatives.”
The ACLU, along with other organizations that are part of a court-appointed “steering committee,” discovered that over 1,000 families were separated in 2017 based on data provided by DHS. Of the 1,000, the committee has made successful contact with the parents of 550 children, and believe about 25 of them may be able to come back to the U.S. for reunification.
While the coronavirus pandemic hampered reunification efforts temporarily, on-the-ground efforts have resumed, according to the ACLU’s court documents.
“While we have already located many deported parents, there are hundreds more who we are still trying to reach,” said Justice in Motion, the organization physically on the ground searching for parents in Mexico and Central America. “It’s an arduous and time-consuming process on a good day. During the pandemic, our team of human rights defenders is taking special measures to protect their security and safety, as well as that of the parents and their communities.”
In response to these revelations, DHS spokesperson Chase Jennings said: “This narrative has been dispelled. In the current litigation, for example, out of the parents of 485 children whom Plaintiffs’ counsel has been able to contact, they’ve yet to identify a single family that wants their child reunited with them in their country of origin.”
When White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern was asked about the report, he said that many of the parents “have declined to accept their children back…. It’s not for lack of effort on the administration’s part.”
It was an odd statement, but one keeping in line with the administration’s tactic of deflecting and shifting the blame onto others.
“First, we have not even found these 545 parents so neither we nor certainly the administration can know whether they want to be reunited,” said Gelernt, responding to the administration’s statement.
“Second, in the past, there have certainly been parents who have made the agonizing decision to leave the child in the U.S. because of the danger the child would face upon return. The humane and simple solution is for the Trump administration to allow the parents to return to the U.S. to reunite with their children, but the administration is not allowing that.”
Democratic candidate Joe Biden called the issue of separated children “an outrage, a moral failing, and a stain on our national character.”
Biden also committed to rolling back Trump’s immigration policies if elected.
“I’ll send a bill to Congress on Day One that will create a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals already living in and strengthening the United States,” said Biden. “These are our neighbors and co-workers, and they are integral to our communities.”
When questioned about the separated children at the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, Trump simply responded that they are “are so well taken care of” in “facilities that are so clean,” but provided no plan for how to reunite them with their families.
The president’s supporters, meanwhile, continue to ignore the matter or attempt to change the subject. Speaking on CNN following the debate, former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum had no defense for the separation policy, saying, “The bottom line: We’re not putting kids in cages anymore.”
As the task to reunite families continues, calls for help in finding parents will continue to travel over the airwaves across Mexico and into Central America.
The legal case prompting this humanitarian endeavor was filed by the ALCU on behalf of an asylum-seeking mother and her 7-year-old daughter fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; they were forcibly separated from each other when reaching the U.S.’ southern border checkpoint and detained 2,000 miles apart.
Al Neal is People’s World associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People’s World.