Anilú Chadwick thought she was delivering good news. After months of scouring government records and coordinating with various federal agencies, she had tracked down the father of one of the more than 5,600 migrant children separated from their parents in government custody while attempting to immigrate to the United States. But there was a problem. When Chadwick set up a phone call between the child — who was being held in a government shelter — and their father, the two couldn’t understand each other. They had only been apart a few months, but the child could no longer communicate with their father in their native language.
Without being able to confirm that this was the right child that they were bringing back to the family over the phone, Chadwick sent the father a picture of the child. “It felt like trying to update the kidnapped child poster to say, ‘OK, is this the child you’re looking for?’” says Chadwick, a managing attorney at the immigration advocacy nonprofit Kids In Need of Defense.
What should have been a moment of relief — a family reunited after a traumatic, protracted separation at the hands of a foreign government — was instead bittersweet. As efforts intensify to reunite families who have been separated since the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy was enacted, instances of migrant children who have forgotten their native languages or even their parents’ faces are becoming more common.
A ‘zero tolerance’ directive
On May 7, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that anyone caught crossing the border without authorization would be arrested for illegal entry. A statute criminalizing illegal entry had been on the books since 1924, but prosecutions were rare, until the Bush era, when they surged after 9/11. Families were largely excluded; those targeted were primarily single adults, not parents traveling with children. For parents hoping to claim asylum with their families, the zero tolerance policy would mean being separated from the children they were trying to protect. A different picture was painted during the policy’s announcement. “If you don’t want your child to be separated,” Sessions said in a press conference, “then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” After six weeks of sustained backlash, representing everyone from former first lady Laura Bush to the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order prohibiting immigration officers from separating families.
But, largely unknown to the public at the time, separations had begun long before Sessions’ announcement and continued after Trump rescinded the protocol. Chadwick started working at Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, in September 2018, three months after Trump reneged on the zero tolerance directive. By that point, advocates for migrant children had been sounding the alarm about the practice for well over a year. In the spring of 2017, legal service providers started noticing an uptick in referrals to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement — and the children they spoke to said they weren’t unaccompanied minors at all. They had come to the United States with their parents, only to be taken from them after crossing the border.
At least 998 of the estimated 5,500 children taken from their parents at the border as of last February are waiting to be reunified with their families, according to the Department of Homeland Security. And uncertainty continues to linger as this year’s presidential election approaches. Immigration is considered by candidates and voters as one of the country’s most pressing issues. Trump has promised to revive extreme immigration crackdowns if he is reelected. This time around, however, there will be more oversight and constraints on the president’s ability to separate families at the border. A recent settlement in federal court — which, at the time of reporting, has yet to be approved by a judge — would prohibit the federal government from separating migrant families again for eight years.
“It felt like trying to update the kidnapped child poster to say, ‘OK, is this the child you’re looking for?’”
Reunification: An impossible task
The language of border enforcement makes it difficult to understand how and why the separations occurred. Crossing the border illegally is indeed a federal crime — one that prosecutors decide whether to enforce. But when Border Patrol agents catch someone crossing between ports of entry, they don’t arrest them: They “apprehend” the border crossers, detain them in Customs and Border Protection custody until they can be transferred to facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and then begin deportation proceedings against them. The entire process, which was created bit by bit over the 20th century, is civil, not criminal, and it applies to children just as much as it does to adults.
The parents who were arrested in El Paso were apprehended by Border Patrol agents then referred to federal prosecutors to be charged with illegal entry then sent back to DHS custody and detained by ICE. Some were deported. Their children, meanwhile, ended up in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters all over the country. And no one made any effort to record which parents corresponded to which children, making reunifications all but impossible.
“Organizations that were working directly with kids in ORR custody were identifying many, many children who were deeply traumatized as they appeared in ORR custody and had been separated from their parents with virtually no record-keeping about the basis of the separation or where the parent could be located,” says Kelly Kribs, the Chicago co-director of the technical assistance program at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
The broader public only became aware that separations were occurring in November 2017, after the Houston Chronicle reported that public defenders in El Paso were being assigned to migrants who claimed to have had their children taken from them after crossing the border. The Trump administration denied that it had a family separation policy in place. But in January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. L., a Congolese woman who had her daughter taken from her in San Diego in November 2017 — one of the thousands of African migrants who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border that year, amid a significant uptick in asylum claims from people outside Latin America. Unlike the families whose separations were triggered by illegal entry arrests, Ms. L. asked for asylum at a port of entry, meaning she didn’t cross the border without authorization. Her child was taken anyway, and they remained separated until the lawsuit was filed. But this was just one reunification, and the government had yet to admit that the separations were systematic and widespread.
In March of that year, the ACLU filed a motion for class certification, expanding the lawsuit to all “adult parents nationwide” in federal immigration custody whose children were being held in ORR shelters, “absent a demonstration ... that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”
By the summer of 2018, all eyes were on the border. A poll by Quinnipiac University found that 66 percent of voters opposed family separation, though 55 percent of Republican voters supported it. Some Republican lawmakers, however, broke with their party’s leadership and criticized the policy. Republican senators including John Kennedy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine spoke out against the separations. Collins called the practice “traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims” and “contrary to our values in this country.” Mitt Romney, at the time the Republican Senate candidate for Utah, urged the Trump administration to stop the “disturbing” separations, which he called a “dark chapter” in American history.
On June 26, a week after Trump ended the policy, a federal judge gave DHS a 30-day deadline to reunite the families separated under the policy, excluding parents who declined to have their children returned to them and those who were deemed to be unfit or present a danger to the child. Children ages five or younger were to be reunited in two weeks.
It quickly became evident that it would be impossible to reunite families within that time frame: At least 400 parents had already been deported and had reportedly been told that they’d only get their children back after signing repatriation documents. Gutting images emerged during these few months. Children were photographed in crowded, dirty Border Patrol holding cells; their cries were recorded by whistleblowers, as were the taunts lobbed at them by immigration officers. A video surfaced of a woman crying after being reunited with her toddlers — not tears of joy, but of confusion upon recognizing that her baby no longer recognized her.
“If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
Gaining the trust of parents
A week after taking office in February 2021, President Joe Biden announced the creation of an interagency family reunification task force, which declined to comment for this story. Until that point, the reunification effort was almost entirely spearheaded by a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations led by Justice in Motion, a nonprofit organization based in New York. With the government’s help, the organizations hoped the arduous process of identifying, tracking down and reuniting families would become a little less difficult.
By June of that year, the task force reported that it had identified at least 3,900 children who were separated under the zero tolerance policy, more than 2,100 of whom had yet to be returned to their parents. “When we received the list and the government information,” Chadwick says, “it was a lot of the same information that we had received in 2018 that led to dead ends.” To find parents, KIND and its partners had to rely on nonprofits in the parents’ countries of origin. One of the biggest hurdles, Chadwick adds, was convincing parents to trust the same government that had taken their children.
“In some cases, it took up to 11 months of continuous conversations with individuals who were part of the family both in the countries of origin and in the U.S. to make sure that this was a true program, that this wasn’t another lie, that they actually may see their children once again,” Chadwick says.
To gain trust, KIND worked with people on the ground in Guatemala who spoke the same Indigenous languages as many of the families who had been separated. Chadwick recalled working with a reunification specialist who is fluent in Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language spoken by about 100,000 people. “It was the first time the father had ever been talked to about separation — explained what had happened — in a language he understands,” Chadwick says. “Having that parent’s trust and having word about the program spread through the community, in that community’s voice, led to more than 20 individuals from that community registering and qualifying to be reunited with their children.”
Throughout the reunification process, the Biden administration and the ACLU have been negotiating a settlement for the families separated under zero tolerance. In late 2021, after The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was considering paying $450,000 to each family affected by the policy, Biden — who had previously said affected families deserved some “sort of compensation, no matter what” — dismissed the report as “garbage.” Shortly after, the administration withdrew from financial settlement talks, noting that settlements could be a political liability. By December of that year, negotiations had stalled. The administration and the ACLU finally agreed on a settlement in October.
Under the settlement agreement, the families who were torn apart will be allowed to return to the United States and will have their asylum cases reopened. Unlike other asylum-seekers, they won’t be subjected to a one-year application deadline. The parents will receive expedited, renewable three-year work permits, and will also get medical and mental health assistance from the federal government. The settlement also expands the size of the class action by at least 500 people, including U.S. citizen children who were reported by their noncitizen parents, bringing the total number of affected children to more than 4,400.
“I think both we and the Biden administration would have liked to have gotten this done sooner,” says Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney on the case. “But now we’re not going to look backward. We think short of Congress issuing green cards to these families, this settlement is a significant step forward.” The settlement also prohibits federal immigration authorities from using illegal entry as a mechanism to separate parents from their children, though it does allow separations under limited circumstances, which Gelernt says the ACLU will track.
“Having a greater number of adverse childhood experiences was shown to lead to decreased lifespan.”
The fallout of ‘zero tolerance’
Some advocates worry these measures don’t go far enough, both in terms of recourse for families and with regards to preventing future separations. “These families deserve monetary damages for the lasting and significant harm that our government inflicted upon them,” says Jane Liu, the Chicago-based policy and litigation director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. Liu adds that separations have continued under Biden, occasionally because Border Patrol agents deem that the parent is a danger to the child, but noted that officers have a lot of discretion while making that determination. “We continue to be appointed to kids that have been separated from family members — parents — under the Biden administration,” she says.
For those who have spent the past six years mitigating the fallout of the zero tolerance policy, the settlement is a crucial step forward, but it is not the end. Dr. Nicholas Cuneo, the co-founder and medical director of HEAL Refugee Health and Asylum Collaborative, says the separations will undoubtedly have long-term — potentially lifelong — effects on children’s mental and physical health. Cuneo points to the large body of medical work indicating that children who go through “adverse childhood experiences” often develop chronic medical conditions. “Having a greater number of adverse childhood experiences was shown to lead to decreased lifespan,” he says.
Cuneo has worked with children of all ages who have been traumatized by separations, and he says that the psychological toll has been significant. “For young children, at the beginning — on the reunification side — they may not know or recognize their parent, and may be very quiet and not emotive in a way that can be powerfully disturbing to the parent, who is wanting to have this emotional reunion,” he says. Older children often feel guilty and ashamed of what happened to them, Cuneo says, “and they’ll internalize that trauma — they’ll feel culpable.” Self-blame is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and some parents, too, blame themselves for what the government did to them.
“They often will question whether they should have made the journey to begin with, even if they were fleeing something that doesn’t leave them with much choice,” he says. “Often, they’ll say, ‘This was much worse than anything I could have imagined.’”