Searches begin with a name and municipality. Sometimes only a name. They look through public records, birth certificate information, and often must ask community leaders for help.
They are known as “defenders” — lawyers in Central America working for U.S.-based nonprofit Justice in Motion, traveling far and wide to find and reunite parents whose children were taken from them at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Their journeys take them to villages near streams, valleys, and forests. They often brave storms and damaged roads.
“Many times, we obtain more information from records of the people here in Guatemala through birth certificates and we can see where the parents are from,” attorney Aroldo Palacios told VOA. “In other cases, we have to go to the community leaders and try to ask if they know a certain person.”
Palacios reflects on the stories he heard from migrant parents deported under former President Donald Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings. The 2018 program led to the separation of more than 5,000 migrant children from their parents. While nearly all parents were sent back to their home countries, their kids remained in U.S. custody.
“As lawyers, they teach us to be strong, not to have too many feelings involved,” Palacios said. “But there were situations that were quite tragic.”
While most migrant children separated in 2018 are once again with their parents or other close family members, the Biden administration has pledged to reunite the remainder, who number roughly 500.
“We’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers at the border,” President Joe Biden said last month.
Biden created a task force to speed efforts to reunite families. First lady Jill Biden reportedly has taken a personal interest in the effort.
But finding parents from throughout Central America and matching them with children still in the United States is no easy task. Legal avenues for parents deported without their children are limited. Under U.S. law, anyone deported is barred from reentry for a period of five years.
Obtaining waivers to the five-year rule for deported migrant parents is one of several projects overseen by Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Gelernt, who fought the “zero tolerance” policy since its inception, has a to-do list for the Biden administration.
“The first is to help us find the remaining 500 families and that means giving us whatever contact information they have,” he told VOA. “The second is … to allow parents to return to the United States to reunify with their children. Some of those children are very young and have been away from their parents for years now.”
“The third,” Gelernt added, “is once they are in the United States and reunified, we want any deportation proceedings the Trump administration started to be terminated, and to provide a pathway for these families who suffered so much to have permanent legal status.”
A parent’s nightmare
Like thousands of migrants, Luis left Guatemala with his teenage son in May 2018 to escape local gangs, trekking more than 2,000 kilometers to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I encountered border patrol officers who took me and my son,” Luis told VOA. “They told me my child had to be separated from me because I was going to criminal detention.”
Luis is not his real name and VOA agreed to protect his identity. He described arriving at the border as a “happy” moment. Luis said he tried to present himself at the port of entry in El Paso, Texas, and ask for asylum. He said officers told him asylum was not available anymore.
Luis and his teenage son then tried to cross the border between ports of entry. They were intercepted by U.S. Border Patrol. Luis was prosecuted for illegal entry while his son joined thousands of other migrant children — some just toddlers — kept in separate holding facilities.
“My son went to one side and I went to the other. It was a very difficult moment. Not just for me but for everyone going through that,” he said. “It was torture what they did to us.”
Luis was deported to Guatemala after almost three months of detention. His son stayed in U.S. custody until a relative living in the U.S. became his temporary guardian.
Family separation made headlines in 2018, especially after video emerged from a detention facility of scores of sobbing children packed together and wailing for their parents.
In May, 2018, then-President Donald Trump said, “I don’t want children taken away from their parents.” However, he added, “when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away.”
A January 2021 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General concluded: “Then Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions was aware that full implementation of the zero tolerance policy would result … in children being separated from families.”
The report added, "[T]he Department’s single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact that prosecution of family unit adults and family separations would have on children traveling with them and the government’s ability to later reunite the children with their parents.”
While nonprofits fighting to bring deported parents back to the United States, those who can’t return must decide between leaving their kids in the U.S. or agreeing to the transfer of their children back to the countries they fled from.
The managing attorney for one nonprofit, Al Otro Lado’s Carol Anne Donohoe, is urging swift action in Washington.
“The president can allow them [deported parents] to come [to the United States] under humanitarian parole. And our Congress can pass legislation that will allow them to have green cards,” she said.
For parents who are still separated from their children, Donohoe recommends granting them Temporary Protected Status.
“There are things that just the executive branch can do to give them relief from deportation to not have them have to be in court hearings,” she said.
On March 1, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration is exploring lawful pathways.
“If, in fact, they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States,” Mayorkas said.
Deported parents of 105 separated children were located in Central America in February. The search continues for the parents of some 500 others.
As harrowing as Luis’ experience was, he turned out to be one of the lucky parents. With the help of Al Otro Lado, he returned to the U.S. border in 2019 and was allowed entry into the United States. Luis and his son, who is now approaching adulthood, were reunited and both are currently in the U.S. Midwest while an asylum claim is pursued.
“It doesn’t matter his size or age, he’s my son,” Luis said before reflecting on their shared ordeal. “That moment stays in your head forever.”