The American Civil Liberties Union told HuffPost that the government finally handed over phone numbers this week for the more than 400 migrant parents who were separated from their children and then deported under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on immigration.
But the organization believes that Immigration and Customs Enforcement deliberately withheld these phone numbers for more than a month, despite the fact that this contact information could have helped reunite many families.
Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU’s ongoing lawsuit against ICE, said he thinks the government had access to these phone numbers before the final court-ordered family reunification deadline on June 26 but kept the information to themselves. He said immigration attorneys have told him that this contact information is in children’s case files and that deported parents and their kids have been communicating with one another throughout June and July.
“The numbers have been [in the children’s files] for a while, and we should have had them for a while,” Gelernt said. “Every day that we didn’t get them is another day we didn’t track parents down [and] weeks and months, potentially, where kids are potentially by themselves.”
An ICE representative told HuffPost that the agency was “unable to comment on pending litigation.”
“I think part of the callousness is ‘Let’s send them back over the border and we’ll never hear from them again.’”
Gelernt said that, despite knowing the ACLU needed contact information to track deported parents, the government didn’t cough up the numbers until Aug. 7, almost a week after they were asked to do so by the organization and the judge. He said it should not have taken so much pressure for the administration to provide organizations and advocates with such basic information about deported parents.
“I don’t think the government felt any obligation to take any initiative,” Gelernt said, adding that the separation crisis was created by the government. “It doesn’t seem like if you’re sitting on the phone numbers, that we [should] have to tell you, ‘Yes, we want them.’”
The administration itself has not outlined a plan to locate these parents, many of whom say they were coerced into signing deportation forms after being told it was the only way to reunite with their children.
Last Friday, the Trump administration was rebuked by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw after it suggested in a court filing that the ACLU should be responsible for finding deported parents. Sabraw said that the government bears “100%” of the burden and that “for every parent who is not located there will be a permanently orphaned child.”
Gelernt said he hoped that in a court hearing Friday the government will provide an update on its strategy to find parents and to reunite any families within seven days of tracking them down. In the absence of a government blueprint and detailed information, lawyers and nongovernmental organizations have taken on the daunting task of trying to locate parents in Central America.
Cathleen Caron, the founder and executive director of the migrant rights group Justice in Motion, said that before the government provided phone numbers for deported parents, advocates only had a list of addresses that were oftentimes vague or incomplete. “Maybe the list says Miguel in Guatemala City, and that’s not [helpful],” she said. “Guatemala City has more than 2.5 million people.” According to the ACLU, more than 100 of the government-provided addresses were completely useless, while others simply listed cities or descriptions such as “street without a name.”
Lesly Tayes, a Guatemala-based lawyer who is part of Justice in Motion’s network, said that the process of tracking down parents had been “exhausting.” She said many of these mothers and fathers live in dangerous, poverty-stricken areas that she can’t visit alone, especially without knowing an exact address. “It’s frustrating to want to help and have barriers to access any kind of information,” she said, adding that she thinks the U.S. government should compile a database of deported parents’ information that lawyers and advocates could access.
Peter Schey, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said that, although NGOs are “searching for a needle in a haystack,” the government has access to embassies, consulates and State Department employees in Central America. “They have most of the information and the resources… [to] easily to locate deported parents. But they just don’t want to do it. It’s almost like a policy of intentional chaos.”
Caron said she thinks the government’s lack of a plan to find deported parents is calculated cruelty. “I think part of the callousness is ‘Let’s send them back over the border and we’ll never hear from them again.’ ... But whenever you abuse someone, there’s going to be people to stand up and help.”
Mari Hayman contributed reporting to this article.