The Trump administration has admitted in court that it deported at least 468 immigrant parents without their children, and while those families are entitled under a federal court order to the chance to be reunified, the Trump administration has yet to make any effort to find them.
“We don’t keep track of individuals once they’ve been deported,” Matthew Albence, the head of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, told reporters on a conference call Thursday. Asked what the plan is now for reuniting hundreds of children in U.S. custody with parents already removed from the country, a Health and Human Services official demurred, saying they are awaiting instructions from federal courts.
In this vacuum, a host of advocacy and faith-based groups have mobilized, launching a sprawling, transnational effort to track down hundreds of parents and ask them whether they want to their child returned to them or to leave them behind in the United States to pursue asylum on their own.
The task ahead is daunting for the independent groups, which include the Women’s Refugee Commission, the International Red Cross, Save the Children, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Justice in Motion and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I don’t have a magic bullet for how we’re going to do it. It’s just going to be very hard detective work,” an exhausted Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead attorney in class action lawsuit over the family separations, told reporters Thursday. “We’re going need every piece of information the U.S. government has about them so we have some basis to go on, including the name of any relative listed in an interview.”
When pressed to provide such information at court hearing on Friday, attorneys for the Trump administration complained that doing so would be “burdensome” and “onerous” and would divert resources from the other ongoing reunification efforts.
But U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who is presiding over the case, shot back that the administration is “at fault for losing several hundred parents.”
“That’s the most pressing group,” Sabraw said of the parents removed from the country. “All efforts have to be made to identify and locate those parents and then to reunify as quickly as possible.” On Sunday, he ordered the government to turn over the names of the deported parents along with any other piece of information that could help the ACLU and other groups track them down.
While the consulates in the parents’ host countries would normally be used to locate people in such a situation, that collaboration isn’t possible if the parents fled to the U.S. in the first place because of government persecution.
“If people were seeking asylum because they feared their own government, they may not want the consulate looking for them,” he explained.
Christie Turner with Kids in Need of Defense flagged an additional challenge.
“Because they were fleeing violence and persecution, they in all likelihood cannot return to where they were living before,” Turner said. “They are essentially in hiding, so they will be very difficult to contact.”
For parents who have returned to rural, remote towns in Central America that have little phone or internet access and few residents who can translate between Spanish and indigenous languages, the task is harder still.
Scattered to the wind
The Trump administration has not disclosed how many of the 468 separated parents who are no longer in the U.S. were forcibly deported and how many signed “voluntary departure” papers.
Trump administration officials told Politico that the vast majority of the deported parents in that situation were never even given the option of having their children returned to them. Those who were given the option — including the more than 100 who allegedly waived their right to be reunified with their children — may not have been afforded informed consent. The ACLU submitted extensive sworn testimony on Wednesday alleging that few if any understood what they were agreeing to, and claiming that many felt “coerced” and “intimidated” into signing the forms, which were often provided in a language they cannot read or understand.
“When these parents find out what they actually signed, they break down in tears. They do want their children back,” Gelernt told reporters Friday after the hearing. “I can’t imagine anything closer to torture than to send these parents back home to their countries and make them live the rest of their lives knowing that just because they got confused or felt pressure, they gave away their child by mistake.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is working with hundreds of separated families in the McAllen, Texas area, told reporters on a conference call on Friday that seven of their clients have been deported without their children — four fathers from Guatemala and three from Honduras, with children ages 6 to 17. Despite having only the parent’s name, national origin and date of birth, the organization has been able to establish contact with three of them, all of whom say they desperately want to be reunited with their children.
“We are being as creative as we can,” said Efrén Olivares with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We reached out to relatives in the U.S. to try to get their phone numbers down in Central American. We are working with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office in Guatemala and Honduras, and they have been very, very helpful. We are talking to NGOs that do human rights work on the ground in Central America to ask them to assist us if they can on this effort, and we are also considering hiring private investigators to assist us.”
Nan Schivone told TPM that her New York-based organization Justice in Motion is collaborating with community and religious radio stations in Central America to begin airing public service announcements that the deported parents may hear.
“We want to spread the message that if there are separated parents who don’t know where their kids are, they can come forward in confidence,” she said.
Schivone said that this and the groups’ other efforts to locate the parents are entirely funded by donations and foundation grants, with no assistance from the Trump administration.
“The government created this mess but they’re leaving it to civil society to clean up,” she said.
Because of the difficulties involved, the ACLU is not asking courts to set a hard deadline for locating the deported parents. Rather, they have asked that if and when they are located, and if they do want their child returned to them, that the Trump administration make it happen within seven days.
Judge Sabraw issued a decision on July 16 to halt the deportations of separated parents, hundreds of which may have taken place prior to his ruling. If more parents were deported since then in violation of the court order, they may be entitled to come back to the U.S. to be reunified with their children and pursue asylum. Whether the Trump administration will attempt to block such returns remains to be seen.
“I think the government is going to fight very hard to not let anyone come back, and secondarily, going to fight very hard to not pay for that travel,” Gelernt predicted.
A harrowing choice
When 25-year-old Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez crossed the border with her 8-year-old son Anthony on May 26, border agents separated her and son. A few days later, he was shipped to a shelter for “unaccompanied” children and she was put on a plane back to Guatemala. Ortiz told the New York Times that she is “completely devastated” and has no idea when or if she will see her son again.
Guatemalan Elsa Ortiz, who was deported from the U.S. in June, asks to have her son back as she demonstrates outside the hotel where US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and authorities from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, are holding a meeting in Guatemala City on July 10, 2018. Nielsen arrived in the Guatemala to discuss the migration crisis unleashed by Washington’s “zero tolerance” practice with authorities of Mexico and countries of the North Triangle of Central America. (Photo by Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)
“Please don’t put me on the plane,” she said she pleaded with the immigration officials. “I can’t go without my son.” When she could not stop sobbing, she said, the agents on the plane gave her a tranquilizer.
Ortiz has since retained a U.S. attorney to help her fight to get her child back. And when Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveled to Guatemala City in early July for a summit with Central American officials, she traveled from her small village to the nation’s capital to stand outside the summit’s hotel with a sign reading “Please give me back my son.”
Despite Judge Sabraw’s order, she has yet to hear if and when they will be reunited.