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Immigration Lawyers Criticize Plan To Reunite Migrant Families


The Trump administration submitted a plan yesterday to reunite hundreds of migrant parents with their children. But immigration lawyers say the government expects them to do most of the work, and they worry that many of those parents are going to be hard to find because they were deported to Central America. NPR's Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Many of the families the Trump administration separated at the Southwest border have been reunited, but many have not. Earlier this week, a federal judge in California ordered the administration to explain how it plans to reunify those remaining families, including more than 400 children whose parents were deported without them. In a court filing, government lawyers promised to hand over information about the parents, but mostly, they'll rely on the, quote, "considerable resources of the American Civil Liberties Union" and other lawyers and nonprofits to track down the deported parents.

LEE GELERNT: It's basically a non-plan. They're putting the burden on us to find these parents and offering vague promises to help.

ROSE: Lee Gelernt is an attorney at the ACLU, which brought the case against the administration. He says the ACLU and other immigrant rights groups do have resources and want to play a role in reunification. But he says the Trump administration is shirking its responsibility.

GELERNT: It's the government who created this crisis by separating these families and deporting the parents, and now they're shifting the responsibility.

ROSE: It's been more than a month since the administration abandoned the policy of separating families that was aimed at discouraging illegal border crossings. Then federal Judge Dana Sabraw stepped in and told the government to reunite those families. The administration has reconnected nearly 2,000 migrant children with their parents or other sponsors. Jonathan White at the Department of Health and Human Services helped organize that effort. He testified on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

JONATHAN WHITE: The people on my team were working 24/7. It's why, for 30 days, I worked 18 hours a day. We were doing everything that we could to move these children as quickly as we could.

ROSE: But that was the easy part. Those parents were in the U.S., most of them in federal custody. There are still more than 550 migrant children living in government-contracted shelters or foster homes. Most of their parents have been deported to Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. And immigrant rights advocates say they will not be easy to find.

CATHLEEN CARON: Some of these communities are very remote. And if you don't have a good address, you could be out for multiple days trying to figure out where that person is that you're trying to find.

ROSE: Cathleen Caron is the director of Justice in Motion. It's a small nonprofit that works with lawyers and organizations in Central America to defend the rights of migrants, and it's one of several groups in the U.S. that are scrambling to find these deported parents so they can be reconnected with their kids. Caron says many of these parents were fleeing for a reason - from gang violence or domestic abuse.

CARON: So if they're deported back, they are concerned for their own safety in the country of origin. So who knows where they're going to go because they're going to hide because that was the reason that they left in the first place.

ROSE: Once the parents are found, immigrant rights advocates have a lot of questions. The government insists all of those parents left their children behind in the U.S. voluntarily. Some may have wanted their children to stay here and apply for asylum. But Caron thinks some parents may not have understood what they were doing.

CARON: All of them deserve an individualized interview to figure out, you know, what happened to them. Did they have consent when their child was taken away? You know, do they want to be reunified? There's a whole series of questions that need to be asked to each parent so that they can make informed decisions.

ROSE: But first, questions remain about how to even begin this process. Who is going to pay for it? Where will the families be reunited, and where will they go after that? Lawyers for the Trump administration and the ACLU will continue that debate before Judge Sabraw later today. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.