Opinion: Three years later, hundreds of migrant families remain separated

A protester outside L.A. federal building two years ago holds a sign reading, "What kind of monsters put children in cages?"
Protesters demonstrating two years ago against the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Lawyers tasked with trying to undo some of the worst damage from the Trump administration’s astoundingly inhumane practice of separating asylum-seeking migrant families told a U.S. district court Tuesday that they have been unable to track down the parents of 545 children who, three years after those separations, remain in the U.S. in foster homes or with guardians.

Most of the parents, the lawyers believe, were deported.

Who exactly ordered up this despicable practice remains uncertain, but it clearly involved top administration officials, including then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and White House aide Stephen Miller, who has been largely responsible for Trump’s hardline immigration policy decisions. NBC News reported in August that, at the 2018 Cabinet meeting when the policy was discussed and approved, the fundamental immorality of the policy was never raised.

Legal challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups led to a court order halting the separations, and Trump, under fire from the left and the right, made a showy display of signing an order ending the practice.


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Yet it continued anyway as immigration agents began separating families under the pretext of saving the children from unsafe parents or guardians, a decision that often hinged on long-ago convictions for crimes — such as driving under the influence — that were not indicators of whether the parent posed a risk to a child. In some cases, advocates have reported, families were separated based on agents’ suspicions over whether the adult was truly a parent or guardian, with no due process.

The policy began with a 2017 pilot project primarily along the Texas border, under which as many as 1,500 families were separated. U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, based in San Diego, appointed the ACLU and other immigrant rights law firms to try to locate the parents, with the cooperation of the federal government.

But the government began the separations without creating a database to keep track of the parent-child relationships or where the parents wound up, which forced the immigrant rights legal teams to try to find many parents in remote areas of Central America, often among people who speak rare languages.

Many of the families fled those areas in the first place out of fear of violence and often under direct threats, and so have gone into hiding or have resettled in places where they might not be recognized by the gangs they fled.

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And given the ongoing drought and agricultural crisis across the Central American highlands, many likely found no reason to return home at all. Some may well be dead. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made a difficult job even tougher.

The most disturbing aspect of this ongoing tragedy is that it was brought about intentionally by the Trump administration, whose representatives cared so little about the human implications of their actions that they didn’t bother to keep track of which families it was destroying. All in service to a hardline, anti-immigrant set of policies that, at the most generous, ignores U.S. and international laws and treaties governing how asylum seekers must be treated.


History will not judge this administration lightly for a host of reasons. But the emotional torture intentionally inflicted on migrant children and their families stands alone as an indictment of Trump’s fundamental inhumanity.

And it indicts, too, those who urged on these practices and who took part in them.