Lawyers trying to reunite migrant families have been unable to locate the parents of 666 children separated by the Trump administration, over 100 more than they had previously believed.
The children were torn from their parents before and during President Donald Trump’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border, where migrants were prosecuted and imprisoned under all migration-related offenses.
While attorneys had reported to a federal judge in October that the parents of 545 children could not be located, the number has turned out to be even greater, according to an email obtained by NBC News.
In the email, Steven Herzog, the lawyer leading the effort to locate relatives of the children and reunite the families, says that the 666 children – roughly 20 percent of whom were under 5 years of age when they were taken from their parents – remain separated.
The new number is due to the fact that the government initially failed to provide phone number contacts for 129 of the children.
“We would appreciate the government providing any available updated contact information, or other information that may be helpful in establishing contact for all 666 of these parents,” Herzog wrote in the email to attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department who are representing the Trump administration.
The Trump administration imposed its “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S. southern border with Mexico between April and June 2018. However, the Trump administration also separated families during a prior pilot program in the El Paso Sector. Most of the children referred to in the email were ripped from their parents during the pilot program, but the total also includes some who were separated under the zero tolerance program.
The new number “includes individuals in addition to 545 for whom we got no information from government that would allow meaningful searches but are hopeful the government will now provide with that information,” according to Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.
Last month it was revealed in a House Judiciary Committee report that the administration had full knowledge that it wouldn’t be able to reunite migrant families under the separation policies, but decided to implement it anyway.
The administration’s policy resulted in the seizure of nearly 3,000 migrant children—including many with physical and mental disabilities—from their parents, most of whom are believed to have been deported from the U.S.
In August it was also revealed that in 2018, Trump administration senior adviser Stephen Miller – a highly influential figure in the White House with extremist views on immigration matters – had proposed extending the family separation policies so that 25,000 additional children would be taken from their parents, including those who legally presented at ports of entry seeking asylum.
The policy has led to enormous emotional and psychological trauma for both parents and children – who were frequently told by U.S. officials that they would never see each other again – and has been described as “torture” and “state-sanctioned child abuse” by Physicians for Human Rights.
Additionally, some of the children were handed over to U.S. families, who have been able to petition for permanent custody for them – meaning that some children are never able to see their parents again and turning the policy into one that amounts to kidnapping.
The administration reluctantly rolled back the policy after it faced a storm of public outrage amid the emergence of stories such as that of a breastfeeding baby being torn from her mother and a father who was driven to suicide after he was separated from his wife and child.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to form a task force that would work to reunite all the separated children with their families. Biden has called the family separation policy “criminal,” but hasn’t commented about whether he has any plans to criminally prosecute officials who planned and implemented the policy.
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