The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a grim update with the US District Court for the Southern District of California on Tuesday: it has still not been able to track down the parents of 545 of the immigrant children who were separated from them by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The number represents roughly one-third of the 1,556 names passed to the civil rights group by a San Diego judge who ordered the practice halted in June 2018. However, despite the court order, the Trump administration continued to separate parents from children at the US-Mexico border, reaching a total of 5,460 by October 2019.
"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," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, told NBC. "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’s filing describes the parents as “unreachable” and notes the various ways in which the organization has attempted to attract the attention of the parents, including soliciting ads in several Central American nations and establishing hotlines for them to call, as well as contacting local non-governmental organizations who work in the communities where the children are believed to be from and sending its own representatives there as well. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly frustrated these efforts, the ACLU notes.
When then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “no tolerance” immigration policy in May 2018, he promised to prosecute immigrants with illegal entry into the US upon their first arrest, separating them from their children.
“If you cross the southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you - it’s that simple,” Sessions said at a San Diego news conference at the time. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
However, according to the Houston Chronicle, US Customs and Border Protection had been separating parents from children at the border for months before Sessions’ speech. The total number of migrant children in US detention had skyrocketed, reaching nearly 13,000 children by September 2018, according to data obtained by the New York Times.
Efforts to free the detained children, many of whom entered the US alone, peaked with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and US District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the children released. Despite this, Gee noted in August that at least 120 children remained in ICE custody.
Earlier this month, a US Appeals Court upheld a September order by Gee for the Trump administration to stop housing detained immigrant children in hotels, in which at least 577 children have been placed since March.
“Unfortunately, there’s an enormous amount of work yet to be done to find these families - work that will be difficult, but we are committed to doing,” Gelernt told the Washington Post. “Not only are we still looking for hundreds of families, but we would have never even known about these families if the Trump administration had its way.”