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At Least 1,000 Children Taken from Migrant Parents at Border Still Not Reunited With Them

by Jo Ellen Nott

Five years after they were cruelly separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border, at least 1,000 migrant children have still not been reunited with them. That was the key takeaway from a fact sheet released on February 2, 2023, marking the two-year anniversary since Pres. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D) established the government’s Interagency Task Force on Reunification of Families (ITFRF).

After the 2016 election of Biden’s predecessor, former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R), rumors swirled about a plan to separate families arriving at the country’s border with Mexico, in order to intimidate them from attempting to immigrate. In the summer of 2017, the U.S Border Patrol (USBP) did just that, ripping children, even infants and toddlers, from their parents’ arms.   

By April 2018, the Trump administration was forced to admit it had rolled out a “Zero Tolerance” policy the year before, criminally prosecuting all adults who crossed the border without documents – a misdemeanor – even parents with young children. This policy tasked USBP with removing children from their parents and placing them in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Over the following two months, media broadcasts showed thousands sobbing parents and children, the latter locked in cages and bedded down under foil sheets, while tight-lipped USBP guards watched with stern expressions.

Many of these parents were prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry. Only in June 2018, when Trump signed an executive order ending family separation, did he and his administration admit they had separated some 5,000 children from their families without any system to track them and no mechanism to reunite them. Instead, children had no way to talk to their parents after separation. Parents were not notified where their children had been taken.

The Trump administration’s reunification plan – presented to the federal court for the Southern District of California in August 2018 – called for a nonprofit to step in and clean up the mess. The American Civil Liberties Union should deploy its “considerable resources” to locate parents ejected at the border and reunite them with their children, the administration said.

“The reality is that for every parent that is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,” replied U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw.

So the hard work of reunification continues under ITFRF, which could go on for years, given the difficulty of locating parents in Central America and returning them to the U.S to get their children.

Five yearsafter being separated at the border in 2018, a father and son from Guatemala have filed suit for damages in federal court for the Northern District of Illinois. Represented by Chicago attorney Amber N. Hallett of the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, Selvin Argueta Caal says he was ejected at the border and his then-17-year-old son was sent to a children’s camp in Houston. Their case remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Argeuta Caal v. USA, USDC (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:23-cv-00598.

Additional sources:  Chicago Sun Times, Immigration Impact, PBS

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