When Lesly Tayes, a Guatemala City-based tax lawyer, first saw images of children locked in cages inside immigration detention facilities near the southern U.S. border, she was stunned. “It made me very upset and sad,” she said. “Later I learned that Guatemala had the highest number of separated families and I felt even worse. I wanted to help.” Within weeks, she’d have her chance.
Earlier this summer, the ACLU sued the Trump administration over its policy of separating parents from their children if they crossed the border between points of entry. A federal court issued a preliminary injunction in late June against this policy, ordering that the separated families be reunified within 30 days. But it quickly became clear that the administration didn’t have a plan to meet that deadline, particularly for the more than 400 cases in which the parent had already been deported back to their country of origin. In one court filing, lawyers for the Justice Department suggested that the ACLU should take on the responsibility of finding those missing parents.
Because the government wasn’t willing to carry out the search itself, the ACLU, along with a small group of other organizations, has set out to do just that.
One of those organizations is Justice in Motion, a Brooklyn-based non-profit founded to provide legal support for migrant workers. Tayes is a member of Justice in Motion’s “defender network,” a loosely affiliated group of lawyers and activists in Guatemala and Honduras formed in 2008 to gather evidence of migrant worker abuses. After the court ruling in June, the ACLU and Justice in Motion asked Tayes and her colleagues to take on the daunting task of tracking down a large number of the missing parents in the two countries.
“These guys are the ACLU of their own countries,” said Cathleen Caron, executive director of Justice in Motion. “They’re all great human rights lawyers.”
Initially, the U.S. government provided only scant data on where the parents might be. There didn’t seem to have been much effort to track them or keep channels of communication open so they could be reunified with their children after they were deported. So Tayes and the other members of the network had to start from scratch, putting out calls on local radio stations and hanging flyers in churches that asked people to call a toll-free number if they had any information about recent arrivals whose children were still in detention in the U.S.
Aroldo Palacios Hernandez, a lawyer based in Huehuetenango, a remote town ringed by lush jungles and volcanic peaks, said that he was often given no more than a name and a municipality: “It would just be a name from Huehuetenango, which has 33 municipalities that can each have 20, 30 or even 70 villages.” He and the other team members dug through government records, matching names with locations and then making calls to acquaintances or local politicians in the area to see if anyone fit the profile they were looking for.
When Hernandez did get a lead, it often meant he’d have to travel long distances on bad roads with no guarantee that when he reached his destination he’d be meeting the right person. “We could have five identical names within one municipality so how would you know which of them is the one you’re looking for?” he said.
Slowly, though, they began to find people who’d lost their children to the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Many said they’d been misled into thinking that their children would be deported with them, and were shocked to find out once they arrived in Guatemala that their children would remain in the U.S. “I remember one man crying,” said Tayes. “He wanted to be able to bring his child back.” Hernandez recalls another man telling him that when he was separated from his daughter, he had to calm her by bending down and reassuring her through the crack under the door.
On Aug. 10, the U.S. government finally provided the ACLU with the phone numbers it had on file for the deported parents. Justice in Motion was given a portion of those numbers to call, making it easier to contact those they hadn’t been able to reach through their canvassing efforts. While there are other organizations in the two countries assisting in the search, Justice in Motion’s defenders tend to get the more complicated cases where phone numbers don’t work or the parent only speaks an Indigenous language.
“The beauty of the defenders’ network is that they’re from Guatemala and Honduras,” Caron explained. “They’re not complete outsiders doing this search, so they have credibility. The model is effective because they know how to navigate the complexities of their countries.”
Government data released on Sept. 13 indicates that 2,217 children have either been reunited with their parents or discharged into the custody of another relative. But more than 400 children remain in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 279 of whom have parents who are not currently in the United States.
In some of these cases, parents have waived their right to be reunified with their children, making the difficult decision to allow the children to continue through the asylum process by themselves. In others, the government simply hasn’t made travel arrangements for the children yet – leading to agonizing waits for some families, who don’t understand why the process isn’t happening more quickly.
Rebeca Sanchez-Ralda, another member of the defenders’ network, says that even when reunions do happen, they aren’t always easy or joyful occasions, with children coming home traumatized and confused. Once, she saw a young boy who’d just arrived from the U.S. to a shelter in Guatemala City begin to cry when his father left the room to use the bathroom, thinking he was going to be abandoned again. In another instance, she says a psychologist at the shelter shared a story about a young boy she’d interviewed who claimed an ICE agent had told him he’d “put a gun to his parents head and shoot them” unless he stopped crying after being separated from them.
Nearly two months past the court-mandated deadline for the reunification of separated families, there are still 60 deported parents whom the ACLU, Justice in Motion, and their partner organizations haven’t been able to find. For their children, the damage caused by separation is likely to be deep and long-lasting.
In time, all the parents may be tracked down, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project. But even then, he said, “we will never undo all the trauma that has occurred.”