Tanzina Vega: It's been three years since the Trump administration started separating families at the US Southern border. Today, lawyers say they are unable to locate the parents of at least 545 children and that's according to new court documents filed by the American Civil Liberties Union this week. The Trump administration officially rolled out its so-called "zero tolerance" policy back in 2018, but the families were already being separated in the months leading up to that as part of a pilot project in El Paso, Texas.
At the time, few records were kept on the families separated during the pilot, including where parents were sent and how to contact them. In recent months, those efforts have been further complicated by travel restrictions, put in place because of the pandemic. I'm Tanzina Vega. Today on The Takeaway, we start with a look at what happens now as these children’s search for their families. For more on this, I'm joined by Michelle Wiley, a reporter for KQED in San Francisco, and Efrén Olivares, the racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Michelle, Efrén, thanks for joining me.
Michelle Wiley: Thank you.
Efrén Olivares: Thank you.
Tanzina: Thank you. Michelle, how many families, we said 545 children, can either not find their families-- What exactly do we mean when we say they can't locate their parents?
Michelle: These are a group of parents that the ACLU, as part of a Steering Committee that's working to locate these parents, say that they are unable to find either because their contact information isn't good or that they have been unable to reach them. This is a group of parents who are considered unreachable. The next step to finding them would be going and physically searching for them. When we're talking about this group of 545, that's what we're talking about.
Tanzina: Efrén, the Trump administration rolled out its so-called "zero tolerance" policy in 2018. Why did they not keep better records of this? Whether this was a pilot program or not.
Efrén: Well, because there was never any intention of reuniting these families. The order came down to start prosecuting 100% of border crossers and especially those with children, as we've learned recently, regardless of the age of the child to take them away. There was no instruction whatsoever of keeping records because the intention, as expressed by the then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, was to deter others from coming, to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible, but there was never a plan to reunite any of these families.
The reunifications have only happened because the court ordered it and because the civil society organizations have been looking and working with these families for the last three years.
Tanzina: Efrén, where exactly are the children now, as they wait to be reunited with their families? Are they in detention centers? Where are they?
Efrén: Most of them are with sponsors and by sponsors I mean relatives or somebody that the Office of Refugee Resettlement has determined is fit to take care of this child. Some others are with temporary foster families. The concern is that we don't know how temporary this arrangement is going to be, because as Michelle was saying over 500 parents have not been found and it's an open question, whether all of them will be found or whether some of these children will never be reunited with their parents.
Tanzina: Some of these children were placed into the United States foster care system, Efrén?
Efrén: Yes. Those who did not have any relatives in the United States.
Tanzina: Michelle, how have efforts gone to reunite families since 2018?
Michelle: For this group of families that we're talking about, they were part of this earlier pilot program, the efforts have been slow, but they were making progress. Basically, the way it happened was, the Steering Committee, who is doing these search efforts, got lists of names from the federal government and they were working through them, trying to contact people by phone and when those communications wouldn't work they would go on the ground in places like Honduras and Guatemala to try and look for people.
Advocates say that they were making some steady progress, but it's difficult. It's not just that you're trying to find someone and you're not totally sure where they are. There's also a trust deficit because of everything that they've experienced. Efforts were underway. They began in 2019 and so they were making some progress and then the pandemic happened and everything ground to a halt.
Tanzina: I'm curious, Efrén. based on that, who is paying for this? Are these children assigned attorneys by the state, by the local jurisdiction, by the federal government? Who is working with them to do this, to help find their families?
Efrén: The children, as far as I know, are not assigned an attorney. They are assigned a social worker, a caseworker with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and they help the children be placed with a sponsor, et cetera. That is the same thing that would happen to a child who would show up at the border without any family, truly unaccompanied. The big difference though, is that these children came with their parents and they were only rendered unaccompanied because of this policy and practice of the Trump administration of separating them from their parents.
Tanzina: Michelle, after these children were separated from their parents and before they ended up with either sponsors or foster families, where were these children?
Michelle: As I understand that they were held generally in ORR facilities. There was, I think listeners might remember, there were often in the early days of family separation in that spring of 2018, they were often protests outside of Southwest key facilities where children might be held, when they're in that liminal space before they were sent to live with sponsors. That's my understanding. That's where they were before they were transferred to sponsors.
Tanzina: Efrén, who bears the responsibility for these children, because it has to be someone? Is it the Office of Refugee Resettlement? Is it the case 4worker? Is it the United States government? Is it their home country?
Efrén: It's the United States government. These families were coming here trying to apply for asylum, fleeing violence, looking for protection. This administration, in our name, I think to some extent we all bear some responsibility because this was done in our name as a government policy, tortured them. That is what the separation amounted to. It was sanctioned by the government coming down from a specific policy from the highest law enforcement in the country with the explicit intent of inflicting pain on these families.
It's clearly the responsibility of the United States government and it is remarkable that three years later, and with potentially over 500 children been orphaned for the rest of their lives, no one has been held responsible, not a single official in the administration has been held liable for this policy.
Tanzina: Michelle, what is it that organizations like Justice In Motion and others are doing because it's not the federal government that's going out from what we understand and trying to find their families. What are a lot of these non-profits doing to do that? How are they actually finding or attempting to find parents on the ground or online or?
Michelle: It's a mix of all those things. They get the last known contact information, but what I always say when I tell people this a lot of these families were separated years ago and imagine how much your life can change over several years. They're working with information that may be outdated or inaccurate and so they go off of that, whatever last phone number they might have. If that doesn't work, they can try and find folks online, see if they can get in touch.
Then the last step of the process is they physically go to a last known address and try and get in touch with friends, family members, to see if they can find where these parents are, because many of them, advocates have told me they've lost hope that they would ever be reunited with their children. There's this whole process, not only of finding folks, but then just letting them know that there could be options for them and that's the process that these organizations are undertaking right now.
Tanzina: Your reporting also shows that there have been complications because of the pandemic?
Michelle: Right. In March, when the pandemic was impacting all of our lives, it really shut down searches, not only to protect the health of the people doing the searching, but to protect the health of the communities that they were potentially going into. For months, up until August, the searches were just stopped, the on the ground searches were just stopped. They could do some searches online, but it's pretty limited, the information they can get.
The searches have restarted on a limited basis, but like many other places, there are health restrictions. For example, I spoke to a defender, [unintelligible 00:09:46] in Honduras who said that she is going out to do searches, but there's only certain days she can go out only for certain hours. She can't stay overnight, which makes it difficult to travel far distances. Things are definitely on a much more limited basis now.
Tanzina: Efrén, what legal rights do these children have?
Efrén: Well, they had very clear protections under a law called the Torture Victim Protection and Rehabilitation Act, the TVPRA, that when a child comes to the United States they are entitled to a process. Now, as I was saying earlier, these children came with their families so for no justifiable reason they were separated from their parents systematically. When children arrive on their own there's a lot of protections that are attached. They're supposed to be held in the least restrictive condition, they're supposed to be released as soon as possible and reunited with their parents or other suitable relative, et cetera. This administration turned all of those protections on their head and instead flouted them as has been found in Federal lawsuits and tortured the families.
Tanzina: Efrén, as a journalist I definitely try not to have too much emotion and things but I have to be honest, this story is heartbreaking. There's a level of cruelty to separating children from parents and I'm wondering if the conversations that you're having with some of the families that you're working with are indicative of any trauma that these children may be facing or their parents may be facing as a result of this separation.
Efrén: Without a doubt. You know, I'm a father myself, I'm an immigrant myself and in many ways, I see that this, but for a different point in time, this could have happened to me. I've spoken to many parents who after they've been reunited, their children do not want to be away from them for 30 seconds. It's clearly signs of PTSD, of separation anxiety. They've on their own and with support of organizations like the Texas Civil Rights Project and others, try to get counseling, try to get support. There's no doubt in my mind that the consequences of this policy and this trauma are going to affect a lot of these children for the rest of their lives.
Tanzina: Michelle, where do efforts to reunite these families go from here?
Michelle: I think that's the question, right? I mean, the advocates and lawyers that I've talked to say they're not going to stop searching. They're going to keep working through sort of whatever hurdles they have to get over but this process is a lengthy one because of the information that they just don't have and because of the restrictions on searches. I think it's really hard to say right now when we might see an end to this. You know people who work on this are optimistic somewhat maybe by necessity. They say, "We're going to keep going, we're going to keep looking," but the news out from this week about the 545 just shows, it's October 2020 and this is still something that's going on.
Tanzina: It's a devastating story and I wish those families the best. Michelle Wiley is a reporter for KQED in San Francisco and Efrén Olivares is the racial and economic justice director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Michelle and Efrén, thanks for joining me.
Michelle: Thank you.
Efrén: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.