The U.S. government tore migrant families apart.
You can help make them whole again.

What is the “Family Separation Crisis” ?

In April 2018, the United States government began what is now known as the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy, under which migrant parents were forcibly separated from their children at the United States border. Many of these families fled violence and persecution in their home countries and hoped to find safety for their children in the United States. Our laws protect the rights of all individuals to apply for asylum and to be treated fairly. Instead, the government tore children from their parents, sending them to separate facilities – sometimes across the country, where they could not contact their parents for weeks at a time. Traumatized parents were imprisoned and rushed through the court system. Many were denied the chance to present their asylum claims while others signed “voluntary departure” papers after immigration officials lied to them and told them that was the only way they would see their children again. Some even signed away their rights to reunify with their children, because the papers they were signing were in a language they could not read. They were deported without their children.  

What has Justice in Motion done about it?

Organizations in the United States cannot efficiently address these harms by themselves. Justice in Motion received calls from across the country asking us to help find the parents deported without their children. To mount a rapid and robust response to the crisis, we mobilized our Defender Network in Central America and Mexico. We brought together 8 Defender organizations in Guatemala and 4 in Honduras - the two countries with the greatest numbers of deported parents - connecting them with lawyers from the ACLU and the organization Al Otro Lado, two organizations that have played a pivotal role in providing legal representation to the parents who were separated from their children.  We trained them on the family separation issue and the possible legal remedies for the parents they would find, and we worked together with Defenders in each country to devise a coordinated national strategy to find and serve the families who suffered separation.

  1. FINDING PARENTS DEPORTED WITHOUT THEIR CHILDREN: In May 2018, the ACLU contacted Justice in Motion to figure out what was happening to the parents who had already been deported. Justice in Motion has more than a decade of experience working across borders in defense of migrant rights. Our Defender Network, comprised of more than 40 human rights NGOs and private law firms across Mexico and Central America, had the knowledge, skills, and connections to help the ACLU get the information they needed. At the ACLU’s request, we sprang into action: Defenders began finding and contacting deported individuals, interviewing parents who had suffered family separation and sharing their stories with the ACLU. We mobilized our Defender Network in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to find the parents. Defenders made radio announcements, activated religious networks to get flyers in churches across their countries, and spent hours driving through remote areas in Guatemala and Honduras in search of a single name, or any clue they could use to find the whereabouts of a missing parent. As our Defenders strove to track down parents with the paltry information the government provided, the ACLU was fighting to force the government to release more data and to hold them accountable for reuniting the families they had torn apart. Justice in Motion and our Defenders played a key role as on-the-ground advisors, explaining the information that Defenders would need to find the parents quickly and efficiently.

  2. REUNITING FAMILIES: Defender Network members interviewed deported migrants to identify parents who were separated from their children. We are connecting those parents to advocates across the region to help them find and reunite with their children. As reports rolled in of the trauma families had experienced, public outrage grew. But it was not until June 2018 that we learned the scale of the U.S. government’s cruelty and negligence. On June 26, as a result of the ACLU’s Ms. L v. ICE litigation, the court ordered the government to reunify the families it had separated. To our horror, we learned that the government had already deported more than 400 parents without their children – and they had no plans to reunite them with their children. The data the government shared with the ACLU was pitifully scant: in some cases, it showed only the country where the parent lived, with no additional information to find them and ask them if they wanted their child returned to them. Finally, in August 2018, the government released the phone numbers for the majority of the parents who were separated. Justice in Motion was appointed to an official role as one of the four organizations comprising the Steering Committee for the Ms. L litigation and the reunification process, along with Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, and the law firm Paul, Weiss. As part of the Steering Committee, Justice in Motion legal staff began to use the phone numbers the government provided to call deported parents and ask them about their reunification wishes, then present their declarations to the government, to begin the reunification process. At the same time, Defenders continued to search for the dozens of parents who did not have phone numbers listed, or whose numbers did not work.

    In one case, a Defender spent more than two full days combing through public records, driving across unpaved mountain roads and through the jungle, and knocking on doors to find the small village where one father, Marcos, lived. When she found Marcos, his story broke her heart: he told her how his young son was clinging to his leg as immigration officials tried to take him; how finally Marcos agreed, for his son’s sake, to cooperate; and how, after weeks without hearing from his child, Marcos was at last able to talk to him on the phone – only to find that the boy refused to speak to him. At seven years old, he couldn’t understand why his father had left him there, alone. Our Defender interviewed the father and took his statement for the ACLU.  Justice in Motion does not represent parents directly, but we were able to connect Marcos to his child’s lawyer to help arrange for his son to be returned to him. However, Marcos was just one among the hundreds of parents who were deported to Central America without their children – and whom the United States government wanted to deem “ineligible” to be reunited with their families.

    Some parents are being detained without their children and denied the chance to pay a bond, because immigration officials claim that they are dangerous criminals. But often, these charges are completely false. We work with our Defenders in Central America and Mexico to obtain criminal histories for detained parents, proving that they are not dangerous and should be reunited with their families.

  3. JUSTICE FOR PARENTS: When the Trump administration decided to split migrant families apart, they violated those families’ civil rights. Together with our Defender Network, we are making sure that parents who were already deported can still contribute to impact litigation on behalf of separated families.

Where are things now?

Over three months of fast-paced collaboration with our Defenders, the Steering Committee, and organizations like Al Otro Lado, we have found the majority of the parents deported without their children.

As Justice in Motion and the Steering Committee find the remainder of the parents still missing and relay their reunification wishes to the government, we have begun the process of reunifying separated families in their countries of origin. When Justice in Motion or another member of the Steering Committee tells the United States government that a parent wants their child back, the government is responsible for processing the necessary paperwork, communicating with the parents so that they know when to expect their child, arranging any necessary logistics with the government in the country of origin, and putting the child on a plane to their country of origin. However, this process is complex, and any errors can cause further anguish for the parents and children. For example, if a parent is told the incorrect date for their child’s arrival, they might drive for many hours to their country’s capital city, only to learn that their child will not arrive for another week. It is therefore critical that Justice in Motion and other Steering Committee members monitor the reunification process for these families – ensuring that parents receive the accurate, up-to-date information they need to reunite with their children in a timely and humane manner.

Many of these families do not have the resources to travel to the capital cities to meet their children, so we are working with Al Otro Lado to coordinate reimbursement for their travel expenses.

But physical reunification is not enough to repair the harms these families have suffered. The United States government ripped these families apart; immigration officials deceived parents and denied them a fair chance to apply for asylum; and parents were deported with no plan to return their children to them. Migrant parents and children suffered trauma and injustice that will have a lasting impact on their lives.

What comes next for the families who suffered separation?

REFERRAL TO VICTIM SERVICES: Our Defender in Guatemala spoke to one father, Edwin, from an indigenous community in the highlands. When he crossed the US border with his six-year old son, the two were separated by immigration officials and detained separately for weeks, with no contact until they were put on a plane back to Guatemala. Now, Edwin’s young son refuses to speak his indigenous language – he will only communicate in Spanish. Hundreds of families like Edwin’s will need many years of support and help before they can feel whole again.

JUSTICE FOR FAMILIES: When the Trump administration decided to split migrant families apart, they violated those families’ civil rights. Together with our Defender Network, we are making sure that parents who were already deported can still contribute to impact litigation on behalf of separated families.

How you can help

The United States government broke migrant families apart. Whether helping to connect families to organizations that can offer psychological support for the trauma they suffered, or working with lawyers to help those families pursue justice for the harms and civil rights abuses they were subjected to, Justice in Motion and our on-the-ground Defender Network will continue to help the families separated by the United States government’s cruel and negligent “Zero Tolerance” policy.

Working across borders with our Defender Network and allies, we will make sure that these families are not forgotten, and that they have access to the resources and services they need. With your support, we can bring those families back together – and accompany them over the long struggle to regain the unity and dignity that were taken from them. 

Please donate today so that we can meet the overwhelming need for our services during this humanitarian crisis. Your donation will also help support our other programs to help more migrants access justice across borders.


in the news

  • Just Security - Arbitrary Detention of Asylum Seekers Perpetuates the Torture of Family Separation

  • ACLU - Separated From Their Children By U.S. Immigration, Jubilation As These Parents Win Entry In Mexicali

  • NPR - Federal Immigration Agents Separated More Migrant Children Than Previously Thought

  • NYR Daily - The Battle to Stop Family Separation

  • Democracy Now! - Mental Health Experts & Rights Groups Call for Unceasing Media Coverage of Separated Migrant Children

  • New York Times - Why Big Law Is Taking on Trump Over Immigration

  • People Magazine - Big Little Lies Star Laura Dern Makes Passionate Plea to Protect Environment and Immigrants

  • WLRN - More Than 200 Migrant Children Are Still In Federal Custody, Separated From Families

  • ACLU - Family Separation by the Numbers

  • Daily Mail - Revealed: ICE officials deported immigrant children without notifying parents when to pick them up

  • Huffington Post - ICE Is Sending Separated Children Home With No One To Pick Them Up

  • Prensa Libre - La díficil tarea de reunir a migrantes con sus hijos, separados por el plan tolerancia cero

  • The Texas Tribune - Hundreds of migrant kids haven't been reunited with their parents. What's taking so long?

  • VICE News - More than 400 parents were deported without their kids. This is what it takes to find them.

  • ACLU - In Guatemala, a Tireless Search for Parents Separated From Their Children

  • Democracy Now! - As 400+ Children Remain Separated from Parents, Trump Admin Wants to Detain Kids Indefinitely

  • NPR - Searching for Deported Parents in Guatemala, While Children Wait In The U.S.

  • Human Rights Watch - US: Deported Parents' Agonizing Wait

  • Huffington Post - Inside The Desperate Search For 343 Parents Deported Without Their Kids

  • New York Times - For Families Split at Border, an Anguished Wait for Children's Return

  • Los Angeles Times - In mountains of Guatemala, searching for parents deported from U.S. without children

  • New York Times - The Continuing Tragedy of the Separated Children

  • Washington Post - The Trump administration’s legacy of orphans

  • ACLU - More Than 500 Children Are Still Separated. Here’s What Comes Next.

  • VICE News - NGOs are using flyers and radio to find Guatemalan parents deported without their kids

  • Huffington Post - ICE Withheld Deported Parents’ Phone Numbers From Lawyers, ACLU Says

  • San Diego Union-Tribune - Feds report good progress tracking down hundreds of deported parents in reunification effort

  • National Catholic Reporter - Civil groups lead efforts to reunite children with deported parents

  • VICE News - The Trump administration wants someone else to find the 400 parents it deported without their kids

  • NPR (WFAE 90.7) - Immigration Lawyers Criticize Plan To Reunite Migrant Families

  • ABC News - Judge rejects government call for ACLU to bear reunification responsibility

  • NPR - Government, Immigration Advocates Continue Court Clash Over Family Reunification

  • The Nation - The US Deported 468 Parents—but Kept Their Children

  • Talking Points Memo - Inside The Search For The 468 Parents Deported Without Their Children

  • Bustle - What Will Happen To Immigrant Children Who Haven't Been Reunited? Their Options Are Limited

  • The Atlantic - The Lost Ones

  • Los Angeles Times - As reunification deadline arrives, fear and uncertainty persist for many migrant families