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Intelligencer: Left Apart

At least 5,000 families were forcibly separated during the Trump administration. The work of reunifying them is painfully incomplete.

A 4-year-old boy and his uncle at the border near McAllen, Texas, in May 2018. Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters

A Nilu Chadwick recognizes some of the children’s names right away. Chadwick, a lawyer for Kids in Need of Defense, has spent the past five years poring over lists of families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy whose cases have yet to be resolved. Some of the children’s names stand out because she crossed paths with them back in 2018, when she represented them at their immigration hearings after they were torn from their parents’ side at the southern border. Those names always remind her of what she witnessed that year. The eerie silence of the children’s shelters. The kids so young that they couldn’t even explain who they were or where they came from. The hearing she had to pause in order to soothe a client with a nursery rhyme. Then there are the names that have simply grown familiar through repetition: the children whose cases appeared on the lists years ago and remain open.

The process of reunifying families separated under “zero tolerance” began in June 2018, two months after the policy was officially implemented. The ACLU had filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of separated families, Ms. L. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and during the litigation, a federal judge halted Trump’s policy and ordered its victims reunified within 30 days. Some of these reunifications were relatively straightforward. The government had records of around 2,800 separated families, and most of those parents and children were still in the U.S. — maybe they’d been sent to separate ICE facilities or the parents were in detention while their children had been placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But for about 470 families, the parents had already been deported. When the Trump administration declined to track them down, Lee Gelernt, the head lawyer for the plaintiffs, stood up in court and said the ACLU would do it. A steering committee was put together comprising a team from the New York law firm Paul, Weiss and representatives from three NGOs, including Kids in Need of Defense and the organization Justice in Motion. “Little did I know what we were taking responsibility for,” Gelernt told me.

The first hurdle the committee faced was the total disorganization with which “zero tolerance” had been implemented. “There was no intention of reuniting families, and so they didn’t design the system to be able to keep track,” Nan Schivone, Justice in Motion’s legal director, told me. The agencies involved — Customs and Border Protection, which took families into custody; ICE, which oversaw their detainment; the ORR, which was responsible for the separated children — didn’t have a comprehensive system to share data with one another, nor did they always keep records linking parents with their children. If children were released from ORR custody into the care of family or friends, the government did limited follow-up. “We give you a luggage tag for your luggage,” said Gisela Voss, a former board member of Together & Free, which supports families seeking asylum. “We separated parents from their kids and didn’t give them, like, a number.

It took two months, until August 2018, for the administration to provide the steering committee with the phone numbers of the deported parents; a quarter of the numbers were missing. The committee began its search, making calls and performing social-media investigations. Then, in January 2019, the HHS Office of Inspector General revealed that more families had been separated than the Trump administration had previously disclosed. Nine months later, the Justice Department finally produced those names. There were 1,500 of them, and the vast majority of the parents had been deported.

The steering-committee members began chipping away at this new batch of cases. They were searching for people who come from some of the most remote and unstable corners of the globe and whose lives were thrown into further upheaval by their migration, separation, and subsequent deportation. Often the committee only had the parent’s partial address, and this information quickly grew stale. Some parents had sold their homes or their land in order to finance their journeys north; others who had fled danger — extortion or gang violence — went into hiding upon their return. When there was a phone number, there was no guarantee that it was current, either. And because of the Trump administration’s hostility toward asylum claims, whenever the steering committee did locate a deported parent, the only available remedy was for their child to repatriate. Some families made the difficult choice to remain apart; they thought their children would be better off in the U.S.

Then, a month after President Biden took office in January 2021, he issued an executive order to establish a task force on family reunification. For the first time, children separated under “zero tolerance” were granted a clear and expedient process by which they could reunify with their parents in the U.S., rather than back in their home countries, and access three years of humanitarian parole here. Moreover, the steering committee finally had the government’s voluntary cooperation in locating victims. “I don’t know of any other time that the U.S. government has recognized a wrong in this way and put this many resources into it to try to correct it,” said Michelle Brané, who had been part of the steering committee and now leads the task force.

The Ms. L. lawsuit had stretched on during the Trump years, and the Biden administration quickly reached out to the ACLU to finally settle. While Biden’s executive order had started the process of widespread reunification in the U.S., a comprehensive settlement could formalize those procedures and provide redress in the form of medical and mental-health care, legal support, and housing assistance. The ACLU also sought to prohibit future family separations. It wanted to send a resounding message: Never again.

Today, the phrase kids in cages lives on as a shorthand for the barbarism and havoc of the Trump years, but the horrors of “zero tolerance” have since been overshadowed by other crises: wars, a pandemic, an insurrection, a new fight about the border. In the meantime, many more families have been added to the steering committee’s roster. Out of more than 5,000 children separated from their parents by the Trump administration, as many as 2,000 still haven’t been reunited. These figures are estimates at best; three years into a new presidency, it appears likely the U.S. government will never be able to provide a thorough accounting of the policy’s victims. The damage grows with every year that passes: Separated parents have been murdered after being deported, and others have vanished during another attempt to cross the border. Kids, too, have died; Chadwick has had to help two sets of parents to reunite with their children’s remains. “We are making an attempt to right the wrong,” she said. “But it needs to be a complete attempt if it’s really going to be done.”

The Family Reunification Task Force launched in early 2021 with a mandate to set up a system by which parents and their children could be reunited in the U.S. “It was building something from scratch,” said Brané. The task force set up the website, where parents separated from their children could register. Kids in Need of Defense began to manage the helpline, which was up and running by November 2021; the work involved, among other things, figuring out how to remove the sound of a rooster crowing from an outreach message recorded by one of the organization’s Indigenous-language speakers. Soon, the helpline began receiving calls from parents affected by “zero tolerance” who had never shown up in records as having been separated from their children.

Meanwhile, the original steering committee continued the work of finding separated family members. When all efforts to trace someone failed, it would send the names to Justice in Motion and its defender network, a constellation of human-rights organizations that have performed some of the toughest searches for families in South and Central America.

Over the past five years, Gabriel Zelada, a labor lawyer in Guatemala, has gone looking for more than a hundred parents in the country’s rural north. It was complicated work — subject to everything from the rainy season to the suspicion of locals to chance (one investigator, after half a dozen fruitless trips to find someone, happened to come across their cousin two years later while searching for a different person). And it brought Zelada into the very households severed under “zero tolerance.” One father he met confessed that he had tried to hang himself with the leg of his pants after his son was taken away. An older woman told him about her daughter who, desperate to get back to her own child, had left for the border again and vanished crossing the desert.

A few months after the task force was established, Zelada was assigned to help find a man who had been separated from his daughter three years earlier and deported. Zelada knew which village the father was from, but after two trips there and a series of false starts, he hit a dead end. At this juncture, it was up to him to decide whether to keep looking or give up.He decided to make one more attempt.

He went on Facebook, messaging anyone he could find who shared the father’s name. That fall, someone responded, suggesting a few areas in Guatemala where the man’s surname is common, all on the outskirts of a city about 115 miles from Zelada’s hometown. When Zelada arrived, people told him the father he was looking for wasn’t from around there, but they knew of him — the man was recognizable by the tuk-tuk he drove for work — and recommended another town. The people in that town told him that the man had moved.

Zelada at last found the man in the next village; there, he learned that the man’s daughter had already returned to Guatemala, too. The family was together again, but their lives were more fragile than ever. The girl had a younger sister, a severely disabled child who looked 7 or 8 but had the intellectual capacity of a toddler, and the father had wanted to go to the U.S. in order to provide better care for her. Upon returning to Guatemala, he had to sell his house to pay off the coyotes who smuggled him over the border. Now, he was living at his parents’ home and receiving threats from people trying to extort him: They would call and threaten to kill him or kidnap his daughters.

Zelada documented what he learned and brought it to Justice in Motion, which then notified the steering committee. Some time later, he received a message from an unknown number. It was the father, sending word that he and his family had made it to the U.S. His youngest daughter was, for the first time, receiving treatment. Zelada was thrilled, but he also wondered, What if I’d given up after two searches? There are families that Justice in Motion and the other organizations have been looking for since 2019. Still, “nothing is truly ever cold,” Schivone said. “No one ever wants to give up.”

As the defender network was working to winnow down, one by one, the list of unsolved cases, the ACLU was fighting to expand it. Although the Biden administration had begun negotiations on the Ms. L. lawsuit in 2021, a quick settlement was proving elusive. There was much to haggle over — the process of bringing additional family members to the U.S., which benefits would be available to victims — and one point of negotiation involved which families were eligible to be included in the class-action suit. Gelernt of the ACLU estimated that around 2,000 families had been excluded from the original Ms. L. lawsuit, which meant that they couldn’t enter the pipeline for reunification. Many of these families didn’t qualify because of a parent’s criminal history, with little to no accounting for the date or severity of the charge — or whether it resulted in a conviction. Disqualified, for example, was a parent with a drug-possession conviction from 1992 and another father convicted of “malicious destruction of property value $5.” At least 48 parents had been ruled out when their only listed crime was a violation of immigration code.

For parents who had been deported without their children under “zero tolerance,” Biden’s executive order had given them a way to return to the U.S. After going through the task force’s process, securing passports and travel permission, they could board a plane rather than retracing a painstaking and dangerous path overland. Still, these reunifications, when they happened, were often an ambivalent victory.

In the spring of 2018, David Montejo left his home in Huehuetenango, a rural department in northwestern Guatemala, with his 11-year-old son, Arbi. Montejo, a local community leader, had already faced reprisals after he opposed the construction of a hydroelectric dam that threatened the purity of a local river. Then a local gang tried to extort him. Arbi, terrified for his father, stopped wanting to go to school; he wouldn’t leave his side. But shortly after the two arrived in New Mexico, they were separated. Arbi was loaded onto a plane and sent to a shelter in New York, where he spent his 12th birthday, while Montejo was deported to Guatemala. Montejo still remembers the humiliation of arriving back home in clothes stiff with dirt and having to call his wife and ask her to pick him up — without their son.

For the next three years, Montejo remained in Guatemala while Arbi lived with an aunt in Miami, where he enrolled in school and began learning English. Then, in 2021, Montejo learned that he would be able to rejoin his son in the U.S. The task force had opened the reunification process to spouses and minor children, so he could bring his wife and younger daughter as well, but Montejo’s eldest daughter was 21 by then, too old to qualify. They couldn’t leave her behind on her own. Montejo called Arbi to ask what he thought. “Papa, I need to see you,” his son told him. So for the second time in three years, Montejo made the decision to say good-bye to his wife and two daughters with no sense of when he’d see them again.

When they met in Miami, Montejo found his son changed. Arbi was taller, warier, no longer a boy. “He was barely speaking,” Montejo recalled. “He didn’t want to touch me. He said, ‘I want my mom.’” Montejo could tell that Arbi no longer trusted him, deferring to his aunt instead. As time went on, “he would hug me, tell me he loved me, but as though he didn’t quite believe it.”

Lesly Tayes, a former member of Justice in Motion’s defender network who now works for KIND, told me that the hardest part of the searches wasn’t running into dead ends or even facing the devastation of the families she located. Rather, it was witnessing the reunifications themselves, which could be joyful but also filled with pain and anger. In the years before Biden’s executive order, Tayes watched parents who had traveled all the way from their remote village into Guatemala City to be reunited, only to find their children raging — or, worse, expressionless. “The child was frequently too young to understand that their parents were powerless to stop them from being taken,” Gelernt told me. “A father broke down in tears telling me the first thing his child said to him when he was finally reunited was ‘Papa, why did you let them take me away?’”

After a few months in Miami, Montejo and Arbi moved to San Diego, sharing a narrow bed in a converted garage, and worked on getting the rest of the family to join them. The legal-aid organization Al Otro Lado had assigned a lawyer, Carol Anne Donohoe, to their case, and she began to petition the government to allow Montejo’s wife and daughters to come to the U.S. Their application was rejected; they reapplied. Donohoe knew of lots of other cases like theirs: families who didn’t fit into the neat boxes of who was eligible for reunification. Many of them didn’t have lawyers.

While he waited, Montejo sent money to Guatemala to pay for English classes for his daughters. Arbi and his sisters practiced over video calls, Arbi gently correcting their pronunciation. Throughout 2022, Montejo worked a landscaping gig three days a week; other days, he installed cabinets or put in floors. “If they call me, I’m there,” he said. San Diego was a blur of job sites and expenses. He was always just trying to make it to the next month: $1,600 for rent, $100 a week for food, $100 a month for English lessons, a little pocket money for Arbi, who had slowly begun to confide in his father again.

Many separated families who have reunified in the U.S. have experienced similar financial hardship. Chadwick knows of some who have returned to their home countries after being reunified because they found themselves homeless and impoverished here. In the past few years, hundreds of families have sought financial restitution from the U.S. government for the psychological torture they suffered during “zero tolerance.” But in December 2021, the Biden administration walked away from a global financial settlement that might have awarded victims $450,000 each after news of the proceedings was leaked. In the years since, the Department of Justice has been litigating these cases — part of which means subjecting families to hourslong questioning sessions that advocates say is retraumatizing. (When asked about the DOJ’s resistance to these cases, a spokesperson responded, “We remain committed to achieving a just resolution for the victims of this abhorrent policy.”)

In early 2023, the rest of Montejo’s family finally received permission to come to the U.S. on humanitarian parole. They arrived in San Diego in April, marking nearly five years since Montejo’s daughters last saw their brother. “We had an unforgettable moment,” Montejo told me. Still, he was working so hard to build a new life for his family that he barely had time to show them around.


A letter Maily wrote to President Biden after the 2020 election.In it, she congratulates him and asks him to help bring her family to the U.S. Photo: Courtesy of the family

Two and a half years after their family’s reunification, Carolina and Antonio Amador live with their two daughters on the Central Coast of California in a town filled with modest, low-slung bungalows surrounded by rolling hills. Carolina can stay outside with her children well into the evening, and nothing happens. “I feel so safe here,” she told me.

In 2018, armed men had come to the family’s house in northwestern Honduras, promising to burn it down if they didn’t pay weekly tributes. Other threats piled up. The couple decided that Antonio and their elder daughter, Maily, then 7, would go north. Carolina would stay in Honduras with their youngest daughter, Angelly, until Antonio had saved enough money to send for them. “Any father or mother in our position would do the same if they knew that the lives of their children were in danger,” Carolina said.

Antonio still struggles to assign language to the feeling of watching through a window as officials forced his daughter’s hands above her head, patted her down, and took her away. It was like they had found his weak spot, like they were removing his own blood, he told me: “You feel defeated, useless, as though you had no arms, nothing to fight back.” Later, the guards taunted him, telling him that Maily had been put up for adoption. He was deported, and Maily ended up being shuttled between aunts in California and Louisiana. For several years, Carolina and Antonio’s parenting was limited to a daily video call on WhatsApp. Maily cried all the time. She said she hated the food in the U.S. — she wanted her mother to cook for her again.

The family was reunited at a McDonald’s in September 2021, almost a year after Voss, then with Together & Free, first tracked Carolina and Antonio down on Facebook. At first, the couple mistook Voss’s message as a joke or a ploy for cash; it took six weeks for Antonio to reply. Now they wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t. Since arriving in the U.S., Carolina and Antonio have both found work. They are trying valiantly to make up for the lost years: buying piñatas to celebrate a cousin’s birthday, going to Santa Barbara to see the ocean. This past August, Maily started seventh grade, which means she is now further into her education than her mother ever got.

The years apart, though, have left their mark. Maily could be just outside, Antonio could look over and see her playing in the yard, he said, but “when you go back over these experiences, you realize how present it all is.” There is a part of him that will live forever in that day at the Texas border. His daughter is with him, but she could just as easily not be.

Maily’s immigration case, which was decoupled from her parents’, is still open; she has been getting notices to appear in court since early 2021. After her first hearing, in Los Angeles, she asked her parents, “What am I going to do if they send me back and you’re here?” Since then, Antonio and Carolina have simply tried to pretend it’s not happening. “I don’t even want to imagine it,” Carolina said.

In December 2023, the ACLU and the federal government at last finalized a comprehensive settlement in the Ms. L. case. The government agreed to bar family separations for eight years and offer those affected by “zero tolerance” some measure of basic legal, housing, and medical assistance, including three years of humanitarian parole. The agreement also provides for a more favorable asylum-application process. But accessing these remedies will require enormous resources; Together & Free is helping to raise $3 million in private donations to help families obtain asylum lawyers.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Amadors can now close Maily’s immigration case and apply for asylum as a family, which would require the family to go before immigration officials to prove their need. Winning asylum would be the best possible outcome, but it feels so out of reach to Carolina that it may as well be the lottery. And if an application fails, it could leave the whole family vulnerable to deportation. The other option would be to try to renew their parole indefinitely. Here too there would be no guarantee. A change in administration would almost certainly jeopardize their chances of renewal. Trump has dissembled when asked if he’d reinstate “zero tolerance” should he be reelected, and any administration of his could decide to target separated families for removal. And while Biden, during his 2020 campaign, said that family separation “violates every notion of who we are as a nation,” the administration’s broader immigration policy has suggested a narrow interpretation of “never again.” Under Biden, immigration officials have continued to separate families. As the president faces a difficult reelection campaign, he has pushed a plan that would heavily fund ICE detention and restrict asylum, and he is reportedly considering employing his executive power to prevent people crossing the border from exercising their right to claim asylum.

Despite their worries about the future, the Amadors still count themselves among the lucky ones. “There were many families who were not as successful at reunification,” Voss said. “To know this family is okay feels like — one worked.” What haunts Antonio is the thought of the parents who suffered the same torment he and Carolina had and who are still out there: too scared to come forward, disbelieving that the U.S. government, having taken so much, could truly wish to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, the search for yet more families is underway. At the end of 2023, the Ms. L. settlement expanded eligibility to new categories of families, opening the door for many more reunifications to take place: parents who had minor crimes on their records as well as people separated at the border since the beginning of the Trump administration. Gelernt estimated that there could be anywhere up to 1,000 more families who are now eligible; the task force has already identified nearly 400 newly qualifying children. But the more that people who have dedicated their lives to this task continue to search, the more it becomes apparent that there will never be a clean resolution. There will always be another family. They know, too, that reunification solves only one problem. Families may be together again, but whether they will ever be whole is another question entirely.


(c) 2024 New York Magazine


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