The parents of 112 children separated at the US-Mexico border by Donald Trump’s administration have been contacted since January, lawyers told a court on Friday, as the judge expressed optimism about reunification efforts now being the responsibility of Joe Biden’s administration.
The new figures were provided as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which in 2018 ended family separations under Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy about unlawful border crossings and ordered the government to reunite families. On Friday, the government’s position in the case was represented publicly for the first time by Biden’s administration instead of Trump’s.
The US district judge Dana Sabraw has overseen the case since the beginning and was deeply critical of the Trump administration’s reunification efforts. Sabraw said in court that he was optimistic that the Biden administration, working in concert with advocates, would bring the case “to a conclusion sooner rather than later”.
Sabraw, who was appointed by George W Bush in 2003, said the White House could quickly address some of the prevailing issues in the case and that it seemed to him it would work in “complete harmony with the steering committee and NGOs and this joined effort is exciting in many ways”.
The ACLU’s lead lawyers on the case, Lee Gelernt, said the “signals are good” from the Biden administration so far, though the attorneys still have concerns about issues such as information sharing.
Trump oversaw the separation of nearly 3,000 migrant children under “zero tolerance” and another 1,000 children were separated from their parents during a pilot program in 2017.
In Biden’s second week as president, he created a taskforce to reunite the families, calling the separations a “stain on the reputation” of the US.
In a court filing on Wednesday, lawyers for the ACLU and the US government said they had been able to make contact with the parents of 105 children since mid-January. By Friday afternoon, the number had increased to 112, attorneys said.
Of the 506 children whose parents had not been contacted on Wednesday, 168 of their parents were believed to be in the US, while the other 322 were deported. Attorneys did not have contact information for 16 of the children’s parents as of Wednesday.
Government agencies did not have systems to track or reunite separated families when they were taking children from their parents at the border and reunification efforts have depended on information that can be outdated or incomplete.
Advocates have traveled to remote parts of Central America to find parents, sometimes with only the name of one parent and the remote municipality they are from to guide the search. Some of these parents are especially difficult to find because they are hiding from the criminal gangs that drove them to flee to the US. If contact with parents is established, it can be difficult to convince them the advocates are there to help.
In court on Friday, attorneys also shared updates on Biden’s reunification taskforce, which they said will address issues beyond those raised in the litigation.
Government lawyers also confirmed Michelle Brané, the director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights and justice program, had been appointed executive director of the government taskforce. Brané is respected by advocates for migrants and warned separations were happening before the “zero tolerance” policy was in place.
The task force, includes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas.
Speaking about family separations earlier this month, Mayorkas said: “I am a father. I am a husband. I am a son. I am a brother. I have not heard before a pain as acute and heartbreaking as that, and it is our commitment to make sure that pain is not felt again.”
Facing intense pressure nationally and abroad, the Trump administration stopped mass family separations in June 2018, but more than 1,100 children have been separated since.