Months before the Trump administration rolled out its ''zero-tolerance'' policy on the US-Mexico border, hundreds of migrant children were already being separated from their families with little fanfare. As those children were shuttled around the country in late 2017, their parents were swiftly detained or deported, with few records taken by the government about where they went or how to contact them.
It was only in 2019, after a federal judge ordered officials to hand their names over to immigration lawyers, that the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups tried in earnest to begin reuniting them.
On Tuesday, those lawyers submitted a court filing with a grim update: They have not yet been able to reach the parents of 545 separated children. About two-thirds of those parents are believed to be somewhere in Central America — without their children.
''Unfortunately, there’s an enormous amount of work yet to be done to find these families — work that will be difficult, but we are committed to doing,'' Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney, said in an interview with The Washington Post. ''Not only are we still looking for hundreds of families, but we would have never even known about these families if the Trump administration had its way.''
Three years after the families were separated, it is perhaps the most tangible legacy of one of President Trump’s most widely condemned policies: hundreds of migrant children scattered across the United States, living in foster care or with relatives, during a global pandemic that has all but halted efforts to locate their parents.
Department of Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Post late Tuesday about the court filing, which was first reported by NBC News.
Under Trump’s official zero-tolerance policy, more than 2,800 families were separated in 2018. When public uproar forced the Trump administration to reverse the policy, many of those families — about 5 in 6 — were still in the United States, including in detention.
A federal judge ordered government officials to hand over records to a group of lawyers and advocates, including Gelernt and his team at the ACLU, who undertook a massive, months-long effort to locate thousands of parents. By now, most have been reunited, either in the United States or their home countries.
But the actual number of separated families was much higher. Lawyers say approximately 1,500 children had been taken from their parents in 2017, while zero-tolerance was being carried out during a secretive pilot program in El Paso. Many more of those parents were deported, never given the option of reuniting with their children in the United States.
US officials also took down incomplete and often inaccurate data during this ''pilot program'' of zero tolerance, Gelernt said. When a judge ordered the Trump administration to hand over a new batch of Excel sheets, it became far more difficult to rely solely on these outdated records to locate parents.
The parents of 485 children have been reached so far, lawyers said in the court filing. But some are missing, Gelernt added, while others are in hiding, having fled the threats that once pushed them north.
Of the parents of 545 separated children who have not yet been contacted, lawyers expect that 75 will be reachable by phone. Another 187 have been found but not reached successfully, and 283 have not been found entirely.
''At some point, we’re going to hit a group of families that becomes very hard to find,'' Gelernt said. ''It’s not inconceivable that we’ll still be looking for them a year from now.''
When records prove insufficient, lawyers must instead rely on a network of human rights lawyers and nonprofit staff — led by the New York-based group Justice in Motion — who have tried to physically track families on the ground in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico.
With little more than a misspelled name or an outdated phone number, the attorneys travel to remote, mountainous villages that are sometimes controlled by gangs and often suspicious of all outsiders. The roads to these tiny hamlets are bumpy and ragged, and the prevailing tongue might be the Mayan language of Mam, not Spanish.
These human rights defenders ''take the minimal, often inaccurate or out-of-date information provided by the government and do in-person investigations to find these parents,'' Nan Schivone, the group’s legal director, said in a statement to the Post, noting that it was already ''an arduous and time-consuming process on a good day.''
Then came the coronavirus pandemic.
With strict curfews and other containment measures imposed across much of Central America, Justice in Motion was forced to halt its time-consuming work entirely. The suspicion and trauma common among separated parents — who are no easier to locate these days — has made it difficult to replicate efforts online.
''We had to completely stop because of the pandemic,'' one Honduran human rights defender, Dora Melara, told KQED.
For months, as outbreaks of COVID-19 exploded worldwide, hundreds of parents and children continued to remained apart — now in quarantine.
Some of the pandemic rules have loosened in recent months, but the work remains no less challenging. In Honduras, where people are only able to leave their homes once a week, Melara spends her one free day traveling to visit families, even though she must be back in her own home 14 hours later.
Still, the last thing she and others plan to do is give up.
''When we will find these parents is impossible to know,'' Gelernt said, ''but we will not stop until we find every last family.''