Lawyers appointed to represent the interests of migrant children and parents who were separated from one another as a result of a program established by the Trump administration, say that the whereabouts of hundreds of parents affected by that policy remain unknown.
An anti-immigration policy called “zero tolerance” was established by the Trump White House in 2018, which physically separated thousands of parents from their children after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of those parents and their children were sent to separate detention facilities run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
It has since come to light that the “zero tolerance” policy was preceded by a “pilot” program in 2017 under which the parents separated from their children were not jailed but deported while their children remained in custody in the U.S. Around 1,000 families were affected by the government’s actions.
On Tuesday, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that parents of about 545 children affected by that pilot program have not been located.
“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,” said Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “There is so much more work to be done to find these families.”
A number of activists and public figures spoke out against the Trump White House in response to the latest news.
Alida Garcia, vice president of Advocacy at FWD.us, did not hold back her contempt for the administration’s actions, saying she believed they were purposeful and implemented with the intention of bringing about just such an outcome.
“They can’t find these parents cuz the policy was to destroy lives intentionally w/ the hope that would stop brown people fleeing bad circumstances from finding hope here,” Garcia wrote in a tweet. “They always saw these families as expendable.”
Jessica Morales Rocketto, civic engagement director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, expressed similar sentiments in a tweet of her own.
“The only reason you separate children from their parents, don’t keep any records of it, and then hide it is to enact maximum harm,” Morales Rocketto wrote, adding that the Trump administration didn’t “care about any” of the families affected by the policy, “and don’t believe they deserve to be treated with respect.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar, a member of Congress from the state of Texas, expressed compassion for those who were affected by the policies.
“An entire generation of children deeply damaged,” Escobar said. “The devastation is far worse than Americans know or understand.”
The congresswoman also suggested in her tweet that NBC News’s Kristen Welker, who is set to moderate Thursday night’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, should bring up the topic for discussion.
Cristina Jiménez Moreta, an immigration activist who co-founded United We Dream, urged her followers on social media to turn their outrage into action.
“There are still hundreds of children who were separated from their parents by Trump that can’t find their parents. You can’t claim to care about these children & still support Trump and/or #ICE & the deportation force,” she wrote. “We must #AbolishICE #DefundHate”
The pilot program for the “zero tolerance” policy was revealed in January 2019 within a report from the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition to acknowledging the existence of the pilot program beginning in the summer of 2017, the HHS report also noted the traumatic emotional toll that children suffered due to being separated from their family members.
“Separated children experienced heightened feelings of anxiety and loss as a result of their unexpected separation from their parents after their arrival in the United States,” the inspector general’s report stated. “For example, some separated children expressed acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably.”
Parents who were affected by the policy also experienced emotional trauma, with some even attempting to commit suicide due to their grief, the HHS report noted.
When it was brought to the public’s attention, the “zero tolerance” separation policy was decried by the United Nations human rights office for being in violation of international law.
The Trump administration’s 2018 policy “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
President Trump eventually bowed to immense pressure, from activists, lawmakers, and protesters across the country and around the world, and ended the program through executive order in June 2018. However, he continued to defend the practice of separating children from their parents at the border in order to deter immigrants from seeking asylum in the U.S.
“If you took zero tolerance away, everybody would come right down,” Trump said at the time. “They’d be getting their little belongings, unfortunately, and they would be heading up. You would be — you would have a run on this country the likes of which nobody’s ever seen.”
While Trump’s comments callously dismissed the emotional toll and human rights violations that occurred under the policy, they also ignored the fact that “zero tolerance” failed to achieve its stated goal of deterring families from seeking asylum in the U.S. According to numbers from the Trump administration’s own Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, the program had absolutely no effect in deterring migrants from coming to the U.S.
“This shows what we’ve been saying all along, which is people fleeing persecution and fleeing for their lives are not going to be deterred. Deterrence doesn’t work; all it does is put people in further danger,” Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission, said one month after the policy ended.
Even after both the pilot program and the “zero tolerance” policies had ended, child and parent separations continued to be carried out, as immigration officials used loopholes to tear families apart, often citing minor crimes or even mere suspicions about bad parenting to do so.
In one example, a father was separated from his 4-year-old son because he didn’t answer questions from CBP agents fast enough. The father had a speech impediment that slowed his ability to speak at a rate deemed acceptable to those agents, which resulted in their questioning the legitimacy of his claim that he was the boy’s father.
However, the father had documentation proving that the child was indeed his son, including a birth certificate from their home country showing the father’s name.
Such behavior from CBP and ICE, however, is not an anomaly. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hundreds of family units have been separated by Border Patrol agents, even after the order to end “zero tolerance” was implemented.