Thousands of children were separated from their parents at the US border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. This is the story of how, five years later, 300 remain lost in a system designed to swallow them
Lee Gelernt: And so I stood up in court and said we will find them. We will get private money to find them. We will get NGO partners and private law firms and private investigators and we will find them.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Lee Gelernt hadn’t checked with his colleagues before he said this in court.
He hadn’t been briefed to say it. He hadn’t even, really, been prepared to say it. But in the heat of the moment, in court, in front of a judge – it just came out.
Lee: Truthfully, I’m not sure anybody at that moment, including myself, understood just how big an undertaking it would be.
Basia, narrating: Lee is a lawyer. He works for the ACLU – the American Civil Liberties Union. He’s worked there for nearly 30 years. He’s now deputy director of their immigration programme. And when he made this promise, he was in a court in San Diego.
It’s 2018, and the case is: Ms L v US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Chief District Judge Dana Sabraw presiding.
Lee and the ACLU were litigating on behalf of a woman, Ms L, an asylum seeker from Congo.
Ms L’s daughter, then aged 6, had been forcibly removed from her, taken from her arms, after they arrived in the US, and she was being kept in a facility more than a thousand miles away.
Lee and the ACLU were in court, fighting to reunite this one mother with her child. But they were also using this one case as part of something bigger – to stop the Trump administration’s practice of separating children and parents at the border.
Because by this point in 2018, the ACLU knew that this was happening on a larger scale.
Though the Trump government wasn’t admitting it, as news of more and more cases began to reach them, the ACLU started to add other separated families to this lawsuit – building a class action.
At first, they were talking about around 400 children who had been separated. But then, that number grew.
Lee: I don’t think at that moment if you said to me, four years later, five years later, will you still be looking for families? Will you have had to go to central America to look for families? I would have had any conception of that. And I also had no idea who would be willing to help us. So in our mind we were going to be looking for roughly 400 plus families. It turned out that we’d be looking for thousands.
Basia, narrating: Soon after Lee had promised to find and reunite those families in court, the number grew again to 700.
700 children taken from their parents at the US border, and put into holding facilities. And then, it grew again after the Trump administration revealed that the number was actually in the thousands.
2,800, they admitted in court.
Since then the total number of children actually separated by the Trump administration has grown to over 5,500. Children of all ages, including still breast-feeding infants. The youngest, just 4 months old.
And so Lee and the ACLU, with a coalition of partners, embarked on a giant piece of detective work: to find the parents of children separated and detained, the young victims of America’s so-called ‘zero tolerance’ policy.
I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. In this episode, we return to one of the great human rights scandals of our time; a dreadful, harrowing policy; that could be impossible to fix.
Reported with my colleagues Claudia Williams and Patricia Clarke – this the story of how 300 children are still orphaned by America.
[Keldy Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga speaking in Spanish]
Basia, narrating: This is Keldy, or to use her full name – Keldy Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga.
She’s from Honduras. A mother with four children.
Her story is here being voiced here by an actor.
Keldy’s life in Honduras was dangerous.
Keldy, translated: Since they murdered four of my brothers, and two brothers-in-law too, a sister-in-law, due to the persecution of my life and the life of my family.
Basia, narrating: She had testified in an open court against the hitmen who had killed one of her brothers. Six family members in total had been killed, and her whole family was in danger.
And so she did the only thing that she felt she could. She fled.
In July 2017, she left Honduras. Her destination? Donald Trump’s America.
But what Keldy didn’t know was what Trump had delighted in telling audiences for months, even years. It was America First after all.
“Anyone who illegally crosses the border will be detained, until they are removed out of our country and back to the country from which they came.”Donald Trump, as reported on France24
Basia, narrating: In January 2017, as Trump had assumed office, he almost immediately signed an executive order, using the guise of national security to ban entry to people from Muslim-majority countries.
“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don’t want them here.”Donald Trump, reported by the Guardian
So by July, when she started her journey to the US, this was the political landscape that Keldy was entering.
Keldy, translated: And we decided, then, to immigrate, leaving, fleeing to different parts. We could not achieve the goal. They couldn’t help us until after we came here to the USA. And that’s where I get trapped.
Basia, narrating: As a lead lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, an organisation that, among its other aims, defends the rights of migrants like Keldy, Lee Gelernt had been monitoring the Trump administration’s policies on children really closely.
But at this point in the summer of 2017, he felt reassured that nothing had substantively changed, yet
Lee: In 2017 there was some media discussion about whether the Trump administration tended to separate families. But what the administration said is, no, we are not doing that. Right now we have no plan to do it. We have discussed it. And I think we, like the rest of the country, largely forgot about it for a little while.
Keldy, translated: Well, they were going to help me and we were going to stop suffering from so much damage from all the abuse that they threatened us with in Honduras. And it was not this way. I always say this phrase, it was like going to a doctor to see if they give it to heal or to relieve the pain, and instead it was more painful.
Basia, narrating: In September, two months after leaving Honduras, Keldy arrived in America. She had travelled by bus across Guatemala and through Mexico.
She had her documents – news clippings, police reports – and she had a plan.
On a hot day, in the arid landscape of New Mexico, she crossed the border on foot with two of her sons – who were then aged 15 and 13 – and she flags down a border control car. She has her papers with her and she feels prepared.
Keldy, translated: I signaled them with my hands for them to help us and when they came and asked me what I was doing there, and I told them I am asking for asylum, it was the first thing that came out of my mouth, I am asking for asylum, and I bring evidence. Well, they detained us, they took us into like a car, well kind of closed in. They later take us to an office where they ask us if I have relatives here in the United States. I said yes. They asked me for an address and everything, and they tell me we are going to call your relatives to buy a plane ticket for you and your children, because we are going to let you go.
Basia, narrating: Keldy had been told originally that they would all be released. But then she was told they’d only be kept apart temporarily.
The situation kept changing. Things were not happening the way that she had been expecting.
She thought that the Border Patrol agents would help her: she wanted to seek asylum, and she had clear documents to support her case.
But what she didn’t know, in fact what very few people knew then, is that the Trump administration had quietly shifted its approach to the border.
It was now trialling a new program: filing criminal charges against anyone who crossed the border without permission – which is a misdemeanor offence for the first time – with no exceptions to be made for families with children or to people seeking asylum.
Before the Trump administration, and before this new policy, families in this situation had generally stayed together, either parolled or kept in a detention centre. But, together.
But all of Trump’s fighting talk, all of his denigrating rhetoric, had calcified into a new policy that had not yet been announced to the world, but it was there, in New Mexico, shaping what was to become the most painful period of Keldy’s life.
Keldy, translated: When the 22nd is over, they call me: ma’am, come on, please, and then my children were also behind me, as always. They tell me, I want to tell you that you are going alone to jail to pay a five-day sentence and your children will go to another place, a shelter, where they will wait for you there to be reunited. And this is only five days that you are going to go and then we are going to transfer you to another place, and they always told me that my children were going to be there. That they were going to be there.
Basia, narrating: After 5 days, Keldy was moved to a detention centre in Texas.
Keldy, translated: I asked an officer: where are my children? And the female officer told me, who told you that your children were going to be here? Your children are not here.
Basia, narrating: And in Texas, Keldy was beginning to realise – that she had fled one nightmare, for another: her sons were not there as she had expected. They were not going to be reunited.
The Trump administration’s new approach sent parents to federal facilities, where, legally, children could not go. Instead, they were handed over to the Department of Health and Human services, and sent to shelters.
Keldy, translated: That was when my world came down on me. And I thought that I had lost my children. I did not know where my children were and asked and demanded: where are my children? None of them told me anything. They never gave me an answer: where were my children? As I could, I called my family and they didn’t even know where they were, my sister didn’t know. About a month after being incarcerated in that detention centre, my sister told me, they are going to deliver them to me, I know where they are. And it was hard, it was so hard for me. Because it was a year and a half without my children. Just hoping someone would come, put money on a phone so I could dial out. If I didn’t have money on a phone to dial, I couldn’t call my kids. It was so painful. An experience that I never thought I would have to live. It was an empty moment I felt in my heart wondering, turning around, where they are, what have they done to them?
Basia, narrating: As Keldy was locked in a detention centre, separated from her children, the ACLU were beginning to receive disturbing reports.
Lee: But then in the fall of 2017, we began hearing from local groups on the ground that there may be separations occurring. We had no idea exactly what was happening or the extent of the practice. So we began investigating, investigating, and by December of 2017, it became clear that these separations were occurring.
Basia, narrating: But Lee admits, there was some degree of naivety among him and his colleagues at the time. There were rumours about family separation but, in April 2017, the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, had told a Senate hearing that, in fact, child separation was not a policy the Trump administration was considering.
Heidi Heitkamp: “There’s been reports that you are considering separating children from their mothers at the border. And I want to know, yes or no, whether that’s true.”
John Kelly: “Can I give you more than a yes or no?”
Heidi Heitkamp: “You can do, just a little bit.”
John Kelly: “Only if the situation at that point in time requires it. If the mother is sick or addicted to drugs or whatever. The same way we would do it here in the United States.”
Heidi Heitkamp: “So if you thought the child was in danger, that’s the only circumstance to which you would separate?”
John Kelly: “Can’t imagine doing it otherwise.”C-Span
Basia, narrating: The focus, outwardly at least, was the wall between the US and Mexico. So when these first stories began to trickle through to the ACLU, they mobilised. And in late 2017 and early 2018, what they discovered horrified them.
Lee: Another mother described an 18 month old son screaming, and they put him into the car seat, they would not let her comfort her baby. And they made her close the door. The car started pulling away. She could see her little baby craning his neck to see his mother as the car pulled away. Another father said, I know you’re going to take my son away, please, this is just a little boy, please let me have 30 seconds with him to brace him for what’s going to happen. They didn’t give him that time. They just said, you’re coming with us and the little boys begging, poppa, what’s happening. And it’s not just the trauma to the children, it’s the trauma to the parents. The unbelievable guilt they feel, but also how much this has torn apart their relationship with their children.
Basia, narrating: It was during this period that Lee met Ms L, the Congolese mother. She was being detained in the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego.
Lee: I got a call saying, there’s a woman from the Congo who escaped with her young six-year-old daughter. She’s now in detention in San Diego. She’s lost her daughter. And so I flew out there to see her. And what I saw was shocking. She was gaunt. Hadn’t been sleeping, had no lawyer, had her child taken away. And she described what had happened, that she had made this journey for months from the Congo, often walking barefoot, begging for food, eating out of garbage cans, finally got to the US and, mind you, came legally, went to the port of entry and said, I’d like to apply for asylum. They let her and her daughter come in, but they put them in detention. A few days later, they brought them down to an office and they said the daughter needs to come in a separate room. The handcuff the mother and the mother said she heard her daughter then screaming, mommy, don’t let them take me. Don’t let them take me. The daughter was whisked away to Chicago. The mother didn’t get to speak to the daughter for many days. Had no idea why the daughter was taken, had no understanding of where the daughter was, did not have a lawyer. By the time I got out to speak to her, it had been months, she’d only spoken to her daughter a few times. The daughter had celebrated her seventh birthday by herself in a facility in Chicago. And I decided right then that we were putting together a larger suit, what was called a national class action, which would cover the entire Trump administration practice all throughout the United States. But this woman was so desperate, we needed to file suit right away.
Basia, narrating: More than 1,000 miles away, in Texas, was Keldy. It had taken her weeks to find out even where her children were. Her two sons, with whom she had crossed the border, had been moved to a centre for unaccompanied minors.
When she was finally able to speak to them on the phone the first thing she asked was: have they done something to you? The boys said no and they told her everything was fine, they told her to have hope, that it would all work out.
I find it quite tough to think about. These two scared, teenage boys: trying to make their mum, who was so far away, just feel a little better.
After a month, the boys were released from US custody to their aunt in Philadelphia, but Keldy remained in detention.
Keldy, translated: I suffered a lot in that place. I suffered a lot. I hid it so that the others would not hurt themselves. They hurt us because many came with a very strong trauma. Very painful things, that I don’t wish on anyone, so much suffering. Many suffered, because I was not the only one there. They pretended that there were no other mothers or fathers who had their children taken. And no, there it was, full of many women who had had taken their children taken from them.
Basia, narrating: Despite the denials, Keldy knew better. All around her, she saw other mothers like her.
Keldy, translated: They had first denied that there were mothers there. But one day I went, in 2018, I went, and we are going to eat at dinner, when I see a Guatemalan mother crying over her food and then I told myself, her children were taken away as well. I felt the mother’s instinct. And then when I came up to her she could hardly speak Spanish. There were others there too and they helped translate for me, and I told her they took your son from you right? And it was a girl and a boy who had been taken from her. And I remember that I told her, you know, look, find me the numbers from everything you have, in order to help you. I don’t know how I’m going to help you, but I’m going to help you. Find me. Many mothers were in that place, and there they were, pretending that there was no one else, that they had not arrested others. Mothers with children and many mothers came to light from that place, and that is where, Las Americas helped.
Basia, narrating: Keldy began to document everything she saw, making lists of the names of the women in her unit in the ICE center.
And soon, word spread. Others got in touch, names were passed to her in secret.
Eventually, that list became the basis for lawyers at Las Americas, an immigration advocacy centre, to find families to help. And while Keldy’s list of names was growing, so was the ACLU’s.
Back in court in San Diego, the ACLU were winning the argument against the government in the case of Ms L, the Congolese mother separated from her daughter for four months.
Lee: So we went into court immediately on her behalf and the government denied that there was any systemic practice going on and said, well, she didn’t have all the papers with her to show that this was her biological daughter. Well, as any expert on asylum could tell you, of course not because she spent months getting here. She was robbed of everything. And we said, well, look, the daughter looks like the mother. The little girl was screaming, mommy, don’t let them take me away, you couldn’t seriously have had any doubts. And the government gave this pretextual answer, well, it’s always possible she was a trafficker. The judge cut through it immediately and said, look, have you asked her whether she’s willing to take a DNA test? The government said, no, we haven’t. Judge said I want you to have a DNA test done immediately. Of course, she was the biological mother.
Basia, narrating: In March 2018 – five months after they were separated, Ms L and daughter were reunited after the judge ordered it.
It’s a moment captured in a documentary called The Fight. You can see Lee, standing with Ms L. Then suddenly, someone is at the door, moving forward. Her daughter, wearing a bright pink puffer jacket. She runs and wraps her arms around her mother. I’d challenge anyone to watch this scene and not weep for them both. Ms L starts sobbing, holding her daughter, these deep, aching sobs, and shaking her head.
[Clip: sound of Ms L crying –The Fight]
Lee: It’s one of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen. I’ve been at the ACLU 30 years. It’s as emotional a moment as I’ve had in my career. Just raw emotion. It wasn’t just that they hadn’t seen each other for months. I think they both felt like they didn’t actually think they would ever see each other again. They had no reason to believe they would ever see each other again, and they just fell to the floor in just the rawest emotion
[Clip: sound of Ms L crying –The Fight]
Basia, narrating: It was a victory for Lee and for the ACLU. But it was brief.
Because those names and stories that Lee had been gathering, they were still growing, and inside that ICE centre in Texas, well, Keldy’s list was also growing.
Pressure was mounting, but the Trump administration just doubled down. By this point, Lee thinks there might be up to 500 children separated.
Ms L versus ICE is no longer just about the Congolese mother, it’s become a class action – a lawsuit about the hundreds of other families separated from their children.
But on 6 April, Jeff Sessions makes zero tolerance an official policy.
“I have put in place a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry on our south west border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens…”Jeff Sessions, as reported by the Associated Press
Basia, narrating: And then, later that same month the New York Times reveals that the number of children separated is greater than anyone had realised. 700 children.
In June, Judge Sabraw rejects the government’s attempts to have the case dismissed. He says that what has been uncovered is offensive, that it shocks the conscience, that the government “arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child.” It wasn’t a ruling but it was a clear sign of the direction things are travelling.
And as journalists and lawyers begin to visit the detention centres where children are being kept, more information is being released in the press.
“This is incredible. Trump administration officials have been sending babies and other young children to at least three – can we put up the graphic of this, thank you, do we have it, no – three tender age shelters in south Texas. Lawyers and medical providers – sorry, I think I’m gonna have to hand this off…”Rachel Maddow, as reported in the Guardian
Basia, narrating: And with it, the tide of opinion begins to change across the political spectrum.
“The president himself said that he doesn’t, he hates these images, he hates this process and that’s why he’s asked for it to be fixed. I feel like we keep ignoring the fact that the president isn’t the one that creates the law…”Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as reported by Time
Basia, narrating: The former first lady, Laura Bush, writes an article for the Washington Post calling the policy “cruel” and “immoral”. She compared it to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2.
And in Vatican City.
“A lot of opinions, one being Pope Francis, who agreed with US bishops, calling separation of families immoral and just tweeted moments ago, ‘a person’s dignity does not depend on them being a citizen, a migrant or a refugee. Saving the life of someone fleeing war and poverty is an act of humanity.’ And I gotta say, I think that’s a quote that’s hard for anyone to disagree with.”As reported in the Washington Post
Basia, narrating: The non-profit newsroom ProPublica releases leaked audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
[Clip: sound from US Customs and Border Protection facility – reported by ProPublica]
Basia, narrating: There are facilities set up at the border to receive children. They pre-date the Trump administration. But they’re generally for teenagers who attempt to cross by themselves. They weren’t set up for toddlers or for babies. These are facilities that just simply weren’t prepared for the zero tolerance policy. They didn’t have nappies or formula. It was a mess.
Trump and his team, well, they’re blaming everyone from the Democrats to the parents themselves.
“It’s congress’s job to create the law and the president has already laid out and gladly stated a number of times publicly that he would sign legislation that fixes these loopholes and fixes our immigration system.”Kirstjen Nielsen, former Secretary of Homeland Security
Basia, narrating: By 20 June, just 6 weeks after the policy became official and 9 months after it started, the Trump administration does a U-turn.
“So we’re gonna have strong, very strong borders, but we’re going to keep the families together. I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated. It’s a problem that’s gone on for many years as you know, for many administrations, and we’re working very hard on immigration. It’s been left out in the cold, people haven’t dealt with it and we are finally dealing with it.”Donald Trump, as reported by NBC News
Basia, narrating: Finally, on 26 June, Judge Sabraw issues a nationwide injunction and orders the Trump administration to reunite the families who have been separated. And he tells them to do this within 30 days.
It was a win. But at that moment, it meant little to Keldy, who remained trapped in a detention centre in Texas.
She had just been forced to appear in front of a full asylum hearing alone, without a lawyer.. By now she had been over 6 months without her children.
Keldy, translated: And there was the judge, there was the prosecutor, there was an officer. But no one gave me the right to present my documentation. Because my documents had not reached me, other evidence that I had had not reached me. It did not give me the right. I had nothing else to do. He wouldn’t let me talk at all.
Basia, narrating: She was not given the opportunity to show the documentation that she had carefully brought with her all the way from Honduras.
Keldy, translated: I felt I was not heard. And yet I begged him and begged him not to send me to Honduras. I’m in danger. Don’t send me to Honduras. I went out as if I was already dead.
Basia, narrating: The judge signed it. Keldy was to be deported. She later found out that the judge in charge of the hearing rejected around 90 per cent of all cases brought before him.
In January 2019, more than six months after the courts had ruled against the child separation policy, Keldy was sent back to Honduras – alone – without her children.
Basia, narrating: Back in America, following the ruling in June 2018, the focus shifted to how the families will be reunited and how long the US government would be given to do it.
And Lee, Lee’s made that big commitment. Remember he had stood up in front of the judge and said, he, with the ACLU, would help reunite families…
Lee: And so I stood up in court and said, we will find them. We will get private money to find them.
At that time, he was anticipating that they would be finding and reuniting hundreds of families.
But of course during the suit, the government had been forced to compile and hand over a list of all the families who had been separated.
And the number was astonishing.
Lee: The government then went back and presented the list of how many children, and we were not sure how many it would be, we had alleged that it could be up to 700 based on the New York Times investigation. It turned out that there were 2,800.
Basia, narrating: 2,800.
Four times the highest figures that had been reported.
The scale was a part of the horror, of course, but in our conversation with Lee, it’s around here that you begin to understand the instruments of this government cruelty.
Because this wasn’t just about separating children from their parents as a deterrent – as a totem of the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting the border.
It was, it turns out, that the bureaucracy was a part of the cruelty, too. Or, maybe I should say, the lack of it,
Lee: He then asked me how many days do you think we should give the government to get these children reunified. And we knew that if we said, you know, they have to get them reunified in a week, it would never happen as a practical matter. Because one thing that had become clear is that they really hadn’t kept track of where all the kids were, as bad as it was to take the kids, they hadn’t actually kept track of where all the kids were and where all the parents were. The judge commented that he thought the United States was keeping track of property better than it was little children. So we decided that 30 days to get all the children reunified and 14 days for children under five. And then the worst part was that all the parents and children in the US eventually got reunified, but the government then admitted that about 400 parents had been deported without their children. And the lawyer for the Trump administration stood up in court and said, well, they’re already deported, they shouldn’t even be part of the case. And the judge said, absolutely not, they were separated. They were in a worse position because they’re sitting in their home country, not knowing where their children are. And the Trump administration then said, well, we’re not going to go find them, we’re not sure where they are.
Basia, narrating: And that’s how Lee came to stand up in court and make that promise.
Together with the legal firm, Paul Weiss, and three charities, Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Justice in Motion, the ACLU began the process of tracking and reuniting children with their parents. But as with almost every step in this story, the situation, somehow, didn’t yet get better.
Lee: Unfortunately. Months later an internal report from the US government said that the 2,800 were not actually all the families. We then went back to court and said, your honour, the 2,800 appear to be not the full amount. The Trump administration said while they were separated so far back, we don’t think they should be part of the case. Again, the judge was furious and said, absolutely, they’re going to be part of the case. The Trump administration then said, well, we need two years to give the ACLU the names of these families, not to find them, just to give us the names. And that’s when they just candidly admitted, your honour, we haven’t really kept track of them and we’re going to have to go through every single hard file we have and figure it out. And I said, well, look that can’t be, some of the kids are three and four years old. That’s half their life. We eventually agreed that the government would give it to us on a rolling basis and would have to finish within six months. So we got another 1,500 children. Many of them, hundreds of them, were under five like the first group. Some were under one years old, breastfeeding, 6-7 months old. They literally were ripping the children out of their parents’ arms.
Basia, narrating: And it’s important to point here that although Lee is in many ways the most visible part in this fight – he’s the lead attorney on the case after all – he is just one person, at one of the many organisations, trying to sort this mess out.
A whole coalition of nonprofits and activists and social workers and attorneys are working towards getting these families together.
But of course there was a problem.
Not only were the list of names incomplete, coming in on a rolling basis, the information they were receiving was scant.
Lee: We would get the name, the child’s name, date of birth, and if we were lucky, we’d get a phone number and if we were really lucky that phone number would still be working and someone would answer the phone. Very often we would get a phone number that was either incorrect or no longer working. Sometimes we would get an address. Sometimes we would get a region of the country. And then there were times we got no information.
Basia, narrating: The work that goes into finding these families is painstaking. It’s tough, investigative work.
Many of the parents aren’t in the US anymore, they’d been deported, like Keldy. Or, their children might be so young that they don’t know any details – they don’t even know their own surname.
The phone numbers scribbled down back in 2018 might no longer work. There are phone lines and adverts dedicated to spreading information across Mexico and Central America, but many of these families who’d been separated, they live in remote places, without good internet access. They might not speak English or Spanish.
And many of them are fleeing persecution in the first place. They don’t want to be found by the wrong people. So, ontacting the government or the police to find out information isn’t always possible or even safe for them.
And sometimes it would work like this, that lawyers at Paul Weiss, one of the big New York legal firms, would get a list of names, children who had been sent to different facilities in New York. They would then enlist the help of other legal firms to find the parents. If they couldn’t find them, they’d conclude that the parents had been deported. So they then contacted another legal firm, with offices in Central America, and their employees would start looking there.
The effort that has gone into finding these families, it just cannot be overestimated.
Even when these groups found both family and child, they were hamstrung because while the Trump administration wasn’t supposed to separate families anymore, that didn’t mean their immigration policy had become any kinder.
Lee: We found those families during the Trump administration, hundreds and hundreds of families, but we weren’t able to offer them much. We could give them two options. You could remain permanently separated, where it remains separated from your child, or we can get your child back to you in central America. Many families with small children had their children brought back to them. But other families, especially if they were older and gang recruitment age, decided it was just too dangerous to bring their child back.
Basia, narrating: In January 2019, a report from the health department’s Inspector General revealed that thousands more children had been separated from their families than originally thought – during a previously undisclosed pilot programme in El Paso, Texas.
That’s what had happened to Keldy.
It is now thought that the Trump administration separated more than 5,500 children from their parents between 2017 and 2018.
For Keldy, time was about to loop. She had been sent back to Honduras, but just days after arriving there, on the 24 January 2019, she began her journey to the US – for the second time. She did it all again, in the blink of an eye, to be reunited with her sons.
She travelled through Guatemala towards Mexico, almost the exact same journey that she had taken a year and a half earlier.
By now, she knew where her children were. She was no longer in detention so she could contact them as she wanted. But she still couldn’t see them.
Instead, she was trapped in limbo at the border of Mexico and the US. Waiting and praying. And while she’s waiting, the political stars realign for Keldy, and for thousands of other parents.
“We can now project that former Vice President Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania and Nevada putting him over the 270 electoral votes he needs to become the 46th president of the United States.”Fox News
Basia, narrating: And the new president, Joe Biden, made it clear early on that he wanted to reunite all the families affected by the zero tolerance policy.
“What happened: parents, their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”Joe Biden, as reported by NBC News
And he followed through.
“President Biden signed three executive orders Tuesday, advancing his immigration reform agenda. The proposals aimed to overhaul many of the policies established by former president Trump. The first executive order establishes a task force to identify all migrant children who were separated from their families by the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.”CBS News
Basia, narrating: For Keldy, this was utterly transformative.
Because, in February this year, 2021, she got a message from Linda Corchada, her immigration attorney, from Las Americas. It was the message she had been waiting for.
Keldy, translated: When she wrote those words, I thought this is it, this is it. I am going to go in, I am going in. And I was planted with that hope, so strong, that we just complied with the lines that the lawyer wrote me. I felt that it was already true. That I was going to enter, that they were not going to deny me anything.
Basia, narrating: She eventually received a message telling her the date – Tuesday 4th May – that she would be allowed to cross the border into the US, and find her sons. After nearly 4 years of hoping, she couldn’t quite believe it.
Keldy, translated: When I told her they are not going to cheat me, are you sure that they will not leave me locked up or they will not make me move from here just to stop me and send me back to my country. Because I was seeing things that were so uncertain, and I was unsure what was happening at that time. Then she told me no, no, no, I’m going to be there.
Basia, narrating: Linda, her lawyer, met her at the Mexican border. From there she got a plane to Dallas, then another flight to Philadelphia.
It was the evening of Tuesday 4th of May 2019 that Keldy walked through the doors of her niece’s house – where her whole family had gathered – and she was finally able to surprise her children.
Mino, one of her sons, had his head bowed into his hands, he was crying out of sheer joy, relief, astonishment. The family piled around her.
[Sound of Keldy’s family greeting her, loud excitement and cheering]
Keldy, translated: I just felt like I was a fulfilled mother. My children in front, my mother, seeing my whole family, I felt fulfilled in all this that happened and that continues to happen. It was all so sudden for them. One of my sons, Alex, the eldest, says he couldn’t believe it. The two little ones from whom I had been separated, they screamed and cried desperately, and they hugged me. It was something very, very strong.
Basia, narrating: And stood in the corner of the room was Lee Gelernt. Keldy was one of the first to be allowed to return to the US, under the provisions made by the Biden administration, with temporary legal status – he had flown in across the country just to witness this moment.
Keldy, translated: Those years came to change, then, the stages of where I wanted to see my children. Growing up with me from that adolescence, going through it with them, explaining many things to them and this came to steal them. Those years, they took everything from me.
Basia, narrating: More than 1,400 children remain separated from their parents.
And this brings me to the number, that, I guess, this whole podcast has been building towards.
It’s not a precise number, it’s a ballpark, which, I think, makes it even worse. Because there are still 300 children whose parents haven’t been found.
According to a court filing from August for 12 of those 300 the government has so far failed to pass on any contact number for the parent, the child, the sponsor or an attorney.
These are children who, at the border, some time between 2017 and 2018, were just taken and lost in a system that used omission, administrative omission, as a form of cruelty.
Finding their parents is now a matter of urgency for Lee and his colleagues.
Lee: And so we have been looking and looking, we unfortunately still are looking for the parents of about 300 children. Where we are now with the Biden administration is trying to fix all this. And it’s a few things: finding the families, the remaining families, is just one part. Reunifying the families in the US with their children is a second part and absolutely critical.
Basia, narrating: So We started reporting this story with a question in our minds, about the 300 or more children whose parents just cannot be found. Who have been, essentially, orphaned by the American border police and by a bureaucratic system that took better care of property than it did of children.
In his order granting the plaintiff’s motion, basically, in favour of Lee’s class action against family separation, Judge Sabraw made some damning remarks. Things that summarise, I think, what this damning episode in American history is about.
He wrote that in the chaos, in the hurry to implement a policy dreamed up by the Trump administration, there were no measures in place for agencies to talk to each other – the agencies housing the children were not in contact with those the detaining parents.
He wrote that there was never any protocol to notify the parents about where their children were; and that these children were used as tools in the parents’ criminal and immigration proceedings.
And perhaps, most damningly, he said that there was just simply never, any reunification plan in place.
And the conclusion of this is the 300 children whose parents can’t be found. Who are lost in a system that was, it turns out, designed to swallow them up.
Lee: I think these 300 children, that the families of these 300 children, are not about some bureaucratic failure that happens all the time. That this is about deliberate cruelty. And I hope that we do not lose sight of this years down the road. And you ask a high school student about it and they have no idea because this is one of those things that can never happen again.
Basia, narrating: I’ve been thinking, as we worked on this podcast, about bureaucracy. About how to articulate what this failure of record-keeping, this failure to keep track of children thrown into a giant national system, shows us.
As Lee and his colleagues continue to work to find these final parents, five years after separation, it’s clear that – the failure of bureaucracy was a part of the brutality of the whole endeavour. It wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate.
In the heavily policed, regimented immigration system built to keep track of those entering the United States, built to trap people into a fortress of bureaucracy, these children were denied due process, a concept enshrined in the US constitution.
For them, there were just a few phone numbers scribbled on papers across the country, getting lost was a deliberate cruelty, from which many of them may never recover.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Slow Newscast. It was reported by Claudia Williams, Patricia Clarke and me, produced by Matt Russell, with original music by Tom Kinsella.
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