Between 2017 and 2018, the U.S. government forcibly separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the U.S. – Mexico border. Traumatized parents were rushed through the criminal court system, and many were jailed. Many parents were either denied a fair chance to argue for asylum protection in the U.S. or were tricked into signing “voluntary departure” papers believing that was the only way they would see their children again. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully challenged the government to end its horrific “Zero Tolerance” Family Separation Policy and reunify families (Ms. L. VICE). But by that time, over 1,000 parents had already been deported without their children. The U.S. government failed to keep adequate records of the separations and had neither a plan nor the intention to locate parents and reunite them with their children.
At Justice in Motion, we know that migrant rights cannot stop at the border. We immediately mobilized our on-the-ground Defender Network of human rights lawyers and organizations across Mexico and Central America to collaborate with U.S. lawyers (including Al Otro Lado, the ACLU, and our partners on the Ms. L v ICE Steering Committee, Kids in Need of Defense, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and the law firm, Paul Weiss) and help find the parents deported without their children.
Since that time, Justice in Motion has played a vital role in finding and supporting parents no one else could reach. Justice in Motion took on some of the hardest cases, including locating “unreachable parents,” communicating with indigenous language speakers, and helping to provide other in-person support to parents who were deported without their children.
Click our interactive timelines to learn about our work reuniting families:
Where are Families Now?
In February 2021, President Biden issued an Executive Order creating the Family Reunification Task Force (FRTF) -an interagency government body - to encourage the reunification of all separated families. After several months of negotiation, the government agreed to allow affected families to reunite with their children safely in the U.S. Families who were separated may apply for humanitarian parole and return to the U.S. where they can reunify in safety and access support to help them begin to heal from the trauma they suffered.
But it has been nearly five years since the first families were separated. Hundreds of parents can no longer be reached using the contact information on file. Justice in Motion Defenders continue searching through communities across Central America and Mexico to find parents no one else can contact and help connect them with a reunification pathway.
Justice in Motion is currently working with long-time partner Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), together with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and supported by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration, to reach parents and help them register to return to the U.S. Defenders are also providing local legal assistance, such as helping families resolve custody issues, to ensure that families can return to the U.S. together.
The local support the Justice in Motion Defender Network provides is essential to ensure that all families can access the return remedy. Many families are indigenous language speakers and/or live in hard-to-reach rural areas. Moreover, many are initially wary of the process after being so egregiously harmed by the U.S. government. Defenders are in a unique position as local attorneys and human rights activists. Familiar with local conditions, customs, and law and trained by Justice in Motion and ally organizations on the return remedy, Defenders have the local presence, cultural understanding, and skills to help families trust and navigate the system.
Hundreds of families have been reunified since Biden took office, and more are being reunited each month. You can read the latest update from the Family Reunification Task Force here.
Justice in Motion has partnered with the oral historians Fanny Garcia and Nara Milanich on Separated, a collection of first-hand stories from families impacted by the U.S. government’s Family Separation policy. Read more here.
How can I help?
Together, we can ensure that these families are not forgotten and that they have access to the resources and services they need.
Please donate today so that we can continue to find and support these families. Your gift will also strengthen our other programs to secure justice for migrants through our unique model of international collaboration.