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Lawyer On Parents Separated From Their Children At The Border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been two years since the Trump administration ended its policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. And still, hundreds of children are separated from their parents. As part of a lawsuit over the policy, lawyers and non-governmental groups were assigned to reunite parents with their children. And now we learn that in 545 cases, parents have not been located or reached yet. That's according to a court filing made yesterday by the ACLU and the U.S. Justice Department.

Earlier, I spoke with Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer on this case for the ACLU, and I asked him to tell us what's known about these children.

LEE GELERNT: So they are very young, many under 5, many, many under 10. We believe the children are in the United States either with foster families or relatives, sometimes distant relatives who they've never met. The parents are overwhelmingly in Central America, having been deported without their children. And I think what's important to understand is why we still haven't found all these families.

First of all, this is a second batch of children who the government hid from us - hid from us and the court. The government originally told us about 2,800 families. We in the court assumed that that was the extent of the separations. Only later in the winter of 2019 because of an HHS investigative report did we find out there may have been many, many more kids separated at the very beginning of the Trump administration.

SHAPIRO: I just want to be clear. You're saying the government hid them from you. Initially, the government denied that this program existed. After it became public, after the national outcry, after the involvement of the courts, you're saying the government still didn't totally come clean at that point.

GELERNT: Exactly. The government never told us about this additional group of children that were separated. Only because of an HHS internal report did we learn about them. Ultimately, the court ordered them to give us the list of the families on a rolling basis within six months, so we got started looking for these families very, very late in the process because the government had hid all the families. We then started looking for them, but the contact information the government gave us was largely stale because the families had been separated so early in the Trump administration's tenure.

And then what happened was we had to go on the ground and look for the families in Central America, literally town to town. The pandemic hit, and that largely had to be halted for months. So the combination of the government hiding the families from the court even after the court outlawed the policy and then having to search for them town to town in Central America and the pandemic has meant that there are hundreds and hundreds of families we still haven't found yet.

SHAPIRO: A White House spokesman today told reporters, we've contacted these families, and the sad truth is that many of them have declined to accept their children back. There may be a variety of reasons for that, but it's very sad. The administration wants the families to be reunited, but for various reasons, the families just have not accepted the children back in many of these cases. What's your response? Is that true?

GELERNT: That is highly unfortunate that the administration is trying to shift the onus onto these families. These families are making an agonizing decision not to bring their children back to Central America because of the danger. If the administration wanted to do what's right, they would bring these parents back to the U.S. after having them put through such horrors. They should never have been separated in the first place.

And unfortunately, even the parents and children who are in the U.S. and have been reunited - the Trump administration is still trying to deport them rather than giving them some status. You'd think after committing this kind of unbearable practice of separating little babies, the administration would turn around and do what's right and give these families some status.

SHAPIRO: Could you imagine a scenario where some of these children may never be reunited with their parents, where you may never find some of these mothers and fathers whose children are in the U.S. right now?

GELERNT: You know, if I'm being honest, I have to entertain that possibility. But the truth is, I try not to let that creep into my thinking because I think we have to remain optimistic. And what we've told the court is that we will not stop looking until we've found every one of these families. This has been the most outrageous practice I've seen in my nearly 30 years doing this work. But for us to stop now and not continue looking for the families would just be horrific. And the government has washed their hands of this. You know, I wish I could say there was some choice, but I don't think there is. We just have to keep looking.

SHAPIRO: That's Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, who is leading the group's litigation over the Trump administration's former policy of family separation.

Thank you for speaking with us.

GELERNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.