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ACLU's Role In Reuniting Separated Families


President Trump's immigration policies suffered a pair of setbacks in federal courts yesterday. In Washington, D.C., a judge ordered the administration to restore DACA, the program that allows young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally to stay. The judge said the government failed to give a rationale for suspending DACA. Separately, in San Diego, Judge Dana Sabraw blasted the government for failing to make more progress reuniting the parents and children it separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Justice Department lawyers had argued that it was up to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing those separated families, to bring the parents and children back together.

We reached the ACLU's lead attorney in this case, Lee Gelernt. I asked him how he sees the ACLU's role in the reunification effort, especially since Judge Sabraw placed the responsibilities squarely on the federal government.

LEE GELERNT: We see that role as doing everything we can to help the government find these parents. The ultimate goal is to reunite these families. So we have all along said we are prepared to help, but we can't help without information. The government has unfortunately been sitting on information, including phone numbers, that could help find these parents. We are asking that that information be provided immediately. But we are also making clear - and the judge agreed with us - that the government bears the ultimate responsibility and can't just wash their hands of this. They need to be out there taking affirmative steps to find these parents. No matter how many NGOs and law firms we put together, the resources are still going to pale compared to the United States government.

GONYEA: The government says it has already released nearly 2,000 children from its custody. How many children remain separated from their parents at this point? And where are those parents? - as best you can answer that question.

GELERNT: We are hearing that there are about 500 or so parents and children who still have not been reunited. The vast bulk - maybe as much as 90, 95 percent - appear to be in Guatemala or Honduras.

GONYEA: We should note that the government says these deported parents waived their parental rights before leaving the country. Do you know anything about that? Did they even know what they were signing?

GELERNT: The truth is we have no idea if even - if they even signed anything. We suspect that overwhelmingly the parents did not understand that they were waving away their right to their children. And one thing that's gone unreported at this point is that we believe that at least 94 parents were actually deported without their kids after the judge issued his ruling saying that families need to be reunited. So he issues his preliminary injunction saying these families need to be reunited, and then the government moves 94 people out of the country without their kids. If the government believes that all of them knowingly waived their rights, then they should have no problem trying to find these parents and the parents can tell us they knowingly waived their rights. But we highly doubt that's the case.

GONYEA: You mentioned just basic information you're trying to get - phone numbers and the like. It's been reported that the government failed to keep adequate records of the parents and the children that they separated. Are you encountering that?

GELERNT: There's no question that the records were poorly kept. But there is some information, and some information is better than nothing. So we know the government has some phone numbers. We'll take those phone numbers. We've even said to the government we would just take what language the parent speaks because if they're speaking an indigenous language that's particular to a small region of Guatemala, that narrows our search. This is basic, common-sense detective work. More information is better than nothing. We know the government didn't keep track of these families, but they have some information. We need whatever they have.

GONYEA: Have you gotten any explanation from the government as to why it's been so hard to get this information so far?

GELERNT: All they keep saying is it's a burden on us. It's a burden on us. They're going to get it to us. But you know, I think when we're talking about the lives of young children, that's not good enough, as the judge pointed out.

GONYEA: Judge Sabraw had a very stark assessment yesterday. He said the reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child.

GELERNT: That's exactly right. I mean, the stakes could not be higher. I mean, to begin with, even the reunifications in the U.S. involved enormous trauma to these children and the parents quite frankly and likely irreparable harm. But now we're talking about a whole nother level, where the child may be orphaned. And I think the judge was very pointed in telling the government he will not have them just wipe their hands of this. They were the ones who unconstitutionally separated these families and then deported the parents without the kids. They need to get together with us and find these parents. They have the ultimate responsibility. He could not have been clearer about that.

GONYEA: That's Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.

GELERNT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.