ACLU Strains To Clean Up Trump Administration’s Family Reunification Mess

A week after the Trump passed the buck to non-governmental organizations to reunite families, several say the government continues to hinder the process.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The Trump administration’s suggestion last week that non-profits take the lead in tracking down the parents of hundreds of children still in government custody—parents whom the government itself deported—was first met with shock from immigrant rights groups.

Then, with gritted determination.

The task seems just shy of impossible: armed solely with undated phone numbers, locate parents in remote areas of foreign countries, many of whom are actively trying to avoid detection by the gangs and criminals whose violence they were fleeing. Then, with a small army of lawyers and translators, fully inform them of their rights as parents and immigrants before, ideally, reuniting them with their children—hopefully, on American soil.

“We absolutely are not planning on allowing the government to thwart reunification based on a supposed claim of a parent knowingly being removed without their kid,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told The Daily Beast. “The judge has made it clear that if the parents want their child, they are entitled to their child—regardless of whether the government thought it was voluntary.”

That the onus is on the ACLU and other non-profit organizations to track down parents that the government lost track of is the latest example, advocates say, of the government’s “pitiful” attempts to cobble together a cohesive response to an immigration disaster of own making.

“It’s going to require a really collaborative effort, given the magnitude of what we’re facing,” Leah Chavla, an international human rights lawyer and policy advisor with the Women’s Refugee Commission, told The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of ridiculous that we have to step into these big big gaps that [the Trump administration] left—it shows a callousness, and that the intent is not really to facilitate reunification.”

“The government needs to step up and act in some way, make more information available to advocates,” Chavla said. “Something needs to happen—we are stepping in because the government failed.”

But until the Trump administration begins pulling its weight and commits adequate resources to tracking down the parents of roughly 500 children who were deported or left the country without them, Gelernt said, “it seems like it’s on us now to start calling the parents.”

In late June, Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court of Southern California ordered the Trump administration “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making” by reuniting the thousands families that had been separated by the government’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy, which took children from their parents at the American border in part to discourage illegal immigration.

The Trump administration’s actions, Sabraw ruled, “belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution.”

But by the court-imposed deadline 30 days later, the government could not locates the parents of hundreds of children eligible for family reunification—in most cases, because those parents had already been deported without their children, or left the country voluntarily.

Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportations unit, told reporters early in the process the U.S. government had no plans to reunite them on American soil. “We don’t have the legal authority,” Albence said, after the first deadline to reunite children under the age of five with their families had passed.

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Asked how the government planned on reuniting those children with their parents—some 431 children, at last count—Albence told reporters that the U.S. government had no plans to reunite them on American soil. “We don’t keep track of individuals who have been deported,” Albence said in late July.

The Trump administration argued in court last week that the job of locating deported parents in the hopes of reuniting them with their children is up to the ACLU and other organizations, arguing that “their considerable resources and… network of law firms, NGOs, volunteers, and others,” were enough to establish contact parents who had been deported or left the country. The ACLU, then, would be responsible for “ensuring that each possible class member has the opportunity to consult with a lawyer regarding that decision, and to discuss that decision with his or her child.”

The government, which deported the parents in question and then lost them, did offer to “help facilitate communications” by handing over any phone numbers they had on file for the parents it had deported.

In response, the ACLU’s attorneys—who are also suing the Trump administration over other aspects of its immigration policies—vowed that they will do “whatever they can” to help locate the deported parents, but emphasized that the U.S. government “must bear the ultimate burden of finding the parents.”

Sabraw, for his part, deemed the government’s “we broke it, you buy it” approach to family reunification “unacceptable,” going so far as to say that if the Trump administration doesn’t find the deported parents, it will have in effect “permanently orphaned” close to 500 children.

“Many of these parents were removed from the country without their child,” Sabraw said in a phone hearing on Friday. “All of this is the result of the government's separation and then inability and failure to track and reunite.”

While the government dithers, non-profit organizations are straining their resources even to get a full picture of the massive undertaking required to locate hundreds of parents scattered across the globe—in part because the government has turned over little helpful information.

“We know the country, maybe,” Chavla said. “Maybe!”

“We’ve got phone numbers for most of the parents,” Gelernt said, “but we don’t know if those phone numbers are up to date—it could have been an old cell phone, we’ll have to see. Once we contact them, hopefully, then there is no obstacle in tracking them down… but if the phone numbers don’t work, we’re going to have to employ basic detective measures.”

Even obtaining those potentially out-of-date phone numbers, Gelernt said, was a struggle, as the government slow-rolled the release of information on deported parents to lawyers hoping to make contact.

“The government should have turned over these phone numbers a long time ago, and that’s no small detail because we could have been looking for these parents a long time ago, reunited them with their kids weeks or months ago,” Gelernt said. “It’s added weeks or months of unnecessary suffering.”

One of the complications is the government’s insistence that every parent deported without their child made the explicit and informed decision to leave their child behind—assertions of which immigration attorneys and advocates are highly skeptical.

“Did they even have opportunities to speak with their child? Did they have an opportunity to speak with an attorney?” Chavla asked. “Did they have time to do other research? To consult an attorney even quickly to learn about their rights?”

To answer those questions, the ACLU and other organizations will require a legion of attorneys to determine whether the parents were fully informed of their legal rights before being deported, which the government has insisted to be the case.

“So many of the parents’ asylum hearings were defective,” Gelernt said. “We are gonna have to try to get to the bottom of what happened to their asylum claims, in addition to finding them.”

“Ideally, we would want to get each parent a lawyer to be able to advise a parent over the phone, in another country,” Gelernt continued. “There’s a lot of those obstacles to fully inform the parent of their rights, beyond just locating them.”

There are also serious language concerns among advocates who view the government’s promise that scores of parents waived their right to reunification. For one, the forms declaring one’s intention to leave a child behind while their immigration status is still adjudicated are written in English, and many of the parents speak indigenous languages not spoken by many government translators.

“I find it hard to believe that this was adequately explained in every case,” Chavla said. “There were definitely not enough [translators] for something like this, and I find it hard to believe that this was adequately explained in every case.”

“That’s not always easy with indigenous languages, but we’re just gonna have no choice,” Gelernt said.

But the bigger issue will be whether any parents will be allowed to return to the United States, both to be with their children and to adjudicate their asylum claims.

“I think it should be a possibility,” Gelernt said, “and I suspect the government is gonna fight us on that.”

The government’s resistance to providing additional information, which advocates say is crucial to successfully tracking down parents in Central America, is indicative of a larger problem: the administration’s lack of concern for the ramifications of its family separation policy.

“There is clearly no concern for the families this affected,” Chavla said, “because otherwise, why would you do it this way?”