Why is it taking so long to track down hundreds of parents who were deported from the US without their children after their families were separated at the border?
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt told the court during a hearing in the ongoing family separations lawsuit that he had just returned from a trip to Guatemala to view the reunification efforts with his own eyes, and the situation is dramatic and heart-wrenching.
Between gangs, jungles, shoddy phone service and distrustful parents, the situation in Central America is incredibly complex as each and every one of these parents is tracked down.
Somewhere close to half of the deported parents have come to conclusions about whether to be reunited, with the choice about 2-to-1 in favor of not being reunified vs. being reunited in their home countries. But the remaining half are still being tracked down and communicated with about their options.
Gelernt described a process that is painstakingly slow to find some parents. Phone numbers go in and out of use based on parents’ ability to pay for service and if they are “fleeing violence.” Other times, they may be reached, but may not trust the person at the other end of the line.
To find the parents face-to-face, Gelernt said, some of the areas are so remote it can take days just to reach a single parent. And there are other areas, he said, “that are just too dangerous” at certain times of the day.
“A lot of what I saw this week is very on the ground and going to communities and talking to the local faith leaders – or in indigenous communities, there’s what’s called a community leader – to ask for permission to go in and ask around,” Gelernt said, saying he had been communicating with local schoolteachers and people of that sort.
He also said some parents are impossible to contact because they work during the day and then can’t leave their homes at night, due to fear – or by the rule – of gangs.
“There were times we were not able to visit certain communities because the gangs had a curfew they had put on anyone going out at night,” Gelernt said.
“All that’s to say that it’s been effective on the ground but it’s been very slow,” he said, adding that the ideal scenario is reaching parents by phone and then following up face-to-face if necessary.
Gelernt also described the heart-wrenching process that is resulting in nearly two-thirds of parents deciding to not be reunified but to allow their children to stay in the US to keep seeking protections to stay.
“What we have seen on the phone calls, but especially when I was there this week, is that the parents feel it is too dangerous for the child to come back,” Gelernt said. “I mean, we’ve had some very difficult conversations with the parent … where the parent is saying as much as they ultimately want to be with the child, as heartbreaking as it is, that they feel like it’s too dangerous for the child to come back.”
Judge Dana Sabraw asked if there was more the government could do to help with the effort, noting that the ACLU and its partner organizations have “gone to extraordinary efforts” in a “very impressive undertaking” to track down these parents on a “manhunt” in Central America. He asked the ACLU to tell him next week what more the government could be doing to help.
“What I don’t want to happen is to simply have a situation where the government is providing the information and the plaintiffs are doing all of the legwork,” Sabraw said. “We’re going to reach a certain point in time in the not-too-distant future where there’s going to be a number of parents that are not located.”
Sabraw added that the fallout of the family separations remains a situation of the government’s “own making” and he wants to be sure that “anything else that can be done” is done.
A Justice Department lawyer said the State Department is involved in the effort and there are some constraints on what staff can do abroad, but they do intend to be helpful where they can.
Gelernt said local advocates have been trying to get spots about the search for deported parents broadcast on local radio stations. He suggested the government might be able to help with additional efforts, such as using a billboard for outreach or providing transportation. But he told the judge he needed more time to confer with colleagues about next steps.