The U.S. government cannot find the parents of 545 children since they were separated by immigration officials in 2017. That statement doesn’t lose its impact, even after reading it several times since the news came to light in a court filing Tuesday by the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union. If numbers aren’t your thing, maybe you can imagine all the milestones your kids have gone through since 2017 and what it would feel like to be missing them, just because you took steps to save them when you feared for your life.
Just who are these children, and what does that number mean? This is a story that we’ve only been able to learn in bits and pieces, so here’s what we can tell you:
In 2017, before the Trump administration began its nationwide family separation policy, the Justice Department had instituted a “zero tolerance” pilot program in Texas. It has recently come to light that immigration officials were given no guidance on what to do with the children of immigrants who were being deported. When the policy went wide in 2018, courts were able to halt the process in time to reunite most of those families while the parents were still in custody.
But some 1,030 children were separated in 2017, and it has since been the job of a committee of organizations, including the ACLU, to locate and contact those parents. Tuesday’s filing gave a depressing update on that process: They have reached the parents of 485 children, leaving 545 children still in this frightening limbo. Seeking these parents involves work on the ground in their countries of origin, the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary stop to much of that work.
“People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer. I just don’t know,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project told NBC News. “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.”
Some of the families who have been contacted opted to have their children stay with sponsors in the U.S. Which, again, we know this is an act of desperation made by people who want better lives for their kids than they can have at home. Of course, they would like to be reunited, but not if it means they’ll all be in danger again.
This story from February in the Washington Post illustrates this awful choice, made by Maria Reynoso, a mother from Guatemala who came with her 6-year-old daughter Adelaida, her sister Patricia, and her sister’s infant son, to seek asylum in the U.S. in July 2017. She had fled death threats from Adelaida’s father and from gang members. Immigration officials detained Maria and sent Adelaida to a foster family in New York City.
“He said, ‘I’m taking your daughter with me,’ and he took her arm,” Maria told the Post of the agent who separated them. “I started screaming. He wouldn’t say where she was going or for how long.”
While Patricia was granted asylum, Maria’s petition was denied. Adelaida was eventually reunited with her aunt in Florida. After her deportation, the government lost track of Maria until an organization in the steering committee, Justice in Motion, located her late last year. She continues to seek permission to be reunited with her daughter in the States. That may eventually be possible with help from attorneys. In the meantime, watch the video above to see how painful this is for both mother and daughter.
“We need to take away children,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions heartlessly said to prosecutors in a conference call in May 2018 about the zero-tolerance policy, according to a report obtained by the New York Times earlier this month. “If care about kids [sic], don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”
Do you really believe these parents don’t care?
Read these children’s books, in which girls of color take the lead.