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Trump Administration Lags Reuniting Families Separated At Southern Border

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A signature policy of the Trump administration was separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. It is something that officials said, on the record, at the time was deliberately intended to deter more migrants from coming. Today, hundreds of children still have not been reunited with their parents, and lawyers for the Justice Department and ACLU revealed last night that they cannot find - they cannot find, they cannot find - more than 500 of the parents. NPR's Joel Rose is covering this story. Hey there, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are, at least, the children here?

ROSE: Well, these are kids who, as you say, were caught up in the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy, as it was known, which officially ended in 2018. And under that policy, the administration separated migrant families in order to deter others from crossing the border illegally. And thousands of children, some just a few years old, were separated from their parents before public outcry forced the White House to reverse the policy. And the efforts to reunite those families have literally been going on ever since.

Last night, the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued over the policy, gave a pretty dramatic update to the federal judge who's overseeing those efforts. And lawyers in the case, as you said, say they still cannot find more than 540 parents who are separated from their children. Lawyers believe more than two-thirds of those parents were deported, without their children, back to their home countries.

INSKEEP: If they're deported, though, there's at least a record of where they went. What makes reunions so difficult?

ROSE: Well, it's partly because the government just had no way in place to track the separated families, and partly because many of these families were deported several years ago, before zero tolerance even became official policy. If you remember, the Trump administration acknowledged that family separation was happening around the spring of 2018, and the ACLU took them to court, where a federal judge ordered the government to find and reunite these separated families and to do it quickly, within just a matter of weeks. And for thousands of families, that is basically what happened.

But the Trump administration actually started separating migrant families much earlier than that as part of a pilot program back in 2017. And, initially, the government was not trying to reunite those families until they were ordered to do so by the court. That wasn't until last year. So that's an additional thousand families or so. I talked to Lee Gelernt at the ACLU, which has been trying to locate those kids and their parents.

LEE GELERNT: Some of these children were just babies when they were separated. Some of these children may now have been separated for more than half their lives. Perhaps almost their whole life they have not been with their parents. But we cannot know how many are still separated and how many want to be reunited until we actually find them.

INSKEEP: Where are the children now?

ROSE: Well, once these families were separated, the children went into a shelter system before ultimately being placed with sponsors in the U.S. Usually that's a family member. They could be anywhere in the country. Lawyers have been trying to track them down in order to reconnect them with their parents so they can decide if they - if the kids want to be brought back, if they want to waive that right and stay here with relatives. But the lawyers have also had trouble finding the kids, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told me they still haven't found about 360 of them, either.

INSKEEP: Don't even know where the kids are, even if they could find the parents. How serious is the effort to find the parents?

ROSE: Well, there's a team of nonprofits appointed by the court that's trying to track them down. It is time-consuming work, though, they say, involves going door to door, often in Guatemala and Honduras. And the pandemic has not helped. It's interrupted on-the-ground search operations for several months, although those operations are now restarting. Lee Gelernt says they're not going to stop until they've found every one of these families, no matter how long it takes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you very much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.