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Immigrant families still separated

A lack of planning and cooperation made a mess of zero tolerance

A Guatemalan child waits to be reunited with his father at the Los Angeles International Airport on Friday. Associated Press/Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu

Immigrant families still separated

Two and a half years after courts ordered an end to family separations at the U.S. southern border, advocates are still searching for more than 500 missing parents whose children are in the United States.

Many of the parents were deported, while some likely remain in the country. Nonprofit groups such as Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) work with partner organizations in parents’ home countries to track down adults who were deported while their children stayed behind. They knock on doors, hang flyers, make phone calls, and run radio ads asking affected people to call. But many of the parents, once contacted, are distrustful of the United States government, said Jennifer Podkul, KIND’s vice president of policy and advocacy.

“Every single postmortem we’ve seen of this is about how these agencies didn’t collaborate. … They all say a huge missing piece of this was that there was not coordination between the agencies,” Podkul said. “That’s why they lost track of these families.”

On Tuesday, acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson rescinded the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy that led to family separations. Wilkinson’s move was largely symbolic because a court order in June 2018 ended family separation. But the policy change, along with a recent inspector general’s report, highlights the lingering effects of the zero tolerance policy.

The zero-tolerance policy demanded the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is in charge of immigration enforcement at the U.S. southern border, refer anyone who tried to enter the country illegally to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. Adults who came to the country with their families went into federal custody with the U.S. Marshals Service, which reports to the Justice Department, while children remained in DHS custody. But DHS cannot legally detain minors for more than 20 days, so it transferred the children into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

While the policy was active from April to June 2018, families passed through the bureaucracies of three Cabinet-level departments, none of which were cooperating sufficiently, according to a report this month by the DHS Office of the Inspector General.

The report said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rushed to implement the zero tolerance policy without informing or preparing other departments involved. As a result, departments broke their own standards for care as migrants crowded into shelters and detention centers, while the Office of Refugee Resettlement struggled to find sponsors or foster families for children. The U.S. Marshals Service, which detained the adults, said the policy left it with a $227 million funding shortfall for fiscal year 2019 and “a shortage of about 3,000 beds.”

The lack of coordination also meant no consistent database tracked the separated families and no one had an official plan to reunite them. More than 3,000 children were separated from their parents from April to June 2018. The administration later confirmed it had separated 280 more families through a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, the year before.

Years later, advocates are still working to find the separated parents, many of whom were deported.

The American Civil Liberties Union formed a steering committee to locate them and offer them their legal options. But again, the lack of government coordination slowed progress.

“The ACLU had to go back to court several times and order the government to hand out all the information,” said Podkul, whose organization belongs to the steering committee. “It’s been very difficult to get a full, complete picture of all the people who have been affected.”

The data the government did provide was often sparse, and last year the pandemic restricted travel in Central America, she said. Sometimes traffickers and smugglers attempt to sneak across the border with children, but she said the steering committee has not encountered any of those cases among the families: “These are instances in which it was the biological parent or legal guardian, someone who had paperwork saying, ‘this is my child’… who had been separated.”

She expects President Joe Biden to issue an executive order later this week creating a task force on family separations to coordinate with the steering committee. Podkul is hopeful that will provide the support they need: “If agencies are working together, I think we’re going to see a seismic shift.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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