Guest Commentary: Moral Imperative to Eliminate the Historic Stain of Family Separation


The Biden administration is inheriting tremendous challenges. But addressing family separation should be a no-brainer.

By Lee Gelernt

In 2018, the ACLU brought a successful lawsuit, Ms. L. v. ICE, against the Trump administration’s barbaric practice of forcibly separating migrant families. At the time, we had no idea of the scale and depravity of the injustice, but now know that thousands of children were deliberately ripped from their parents, including toddlers and babies.

This fall, we reported that hundreds of these families had still not been located, triggering a promise by President-elect Biden to create a task force to address family separation. We welcome all assistance the Biden administration can provide to help us find these families. But, critically, the new administration must do more than that if it is going to fully address the family separation tragedy it inherited.

Understandably, many are asking why hundreds of families remain missing after so many years and what has happened to the thousands of other families who were located.

The reason so many families have not been located is because the Trump administration withheld their names and then failed to disclose information that could have helped us find them. Indeed, it was not until 2019 that we even received the supposedly final list of children, and by then some of the children had been without their parents for nearly two years.

Making matters worse, the contact information for the families frequently was stale, too vague, or non-existent. While an ACLU-convened steering committee (consisting of the Paul Weiss law firm, KIND, WRC, and Justice in Motion) has nonetheless managed to find most of the families even with this limited information, the parents of 611 children have yet to be located.

We repeatedly asked the Trump administration whether it had additional contact information, and, over and over, the administration told us it did not. But last month, in response to the international outcry over the still-missing families, the administration suddenly gave us phone numbers and addresses, claiming it was an oversight. Beyond any additional assistance the Biden administration can give us to find the still-missing families, it must do four things.

First, it must permit deported families to reunite in the United States. Many mistakenly assume that only the missing 611 remain separated. But the Trump administration deported hundreds of other parents without their children (often telling the parent that their child would meet them on the plane only to have the plane take off without the child). We have found many of these still-separated families, but the Trump administration gave them only two brutal choices: remain separated from their children or bring their children back to the very danger they fled in the first place. The Biden administration has the power to immediately “parole” these families into the United States, allowing them to reunite in safety here.

Second, the Biden administration must use its executive power to protect these families from deportation once reunited in the U.S. The Trump administration has been deporting them, but given what these families have endured, that is unconscionable. And once their deportations are deferred, the Biden administration must explore all available means to confer permanent legal status. Importantly, this will also help us locate the missing 611, because families will be more willing to come forward if they know they will be safe.

Third, the Biden task force must create a fund to provide basic necessities, including trauma-informed care for both the children and parents. Without this help, these families stand little chance. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded, the Trump administration engaged in “child abuse” that has caused lasting trauma. Physicians for Human Rights has gone further and called it torture.

Finally, the task force must ensure there are no more family separations so we do not repeat this tragedy.

The Biden administration is inheriting tremendous challenges. But addressing family separation should be a no-brainer. In 2018, when the country learned that babies and toddlers were being ripped from their parents’ arms, the public revulsion spanned the ideological spectrum. The sentiment was uniform: our government should not take babies from their parents and use them as political pawns.

Ultimately, it is a moral imperative to eliminate the historic stain on this country. I have been doing this work at the ACLU for nearly 30 years and have never seen a more inhumane practice or one that received such widespread, swift, and unequivocal condemnation. I still worry, though, that all the talk of aggregate statistics and abstract policy prescriptions will blur the human dimension, and the fact that the trauma caused to each of these children by family separation is its own tragic story.

I hope the Biden administration will remember stories like that of one of the first reunited families in our case, whose mother told us that her 4-year-old son kept asking if they were going to take him away again. Or the little boy with glasses whose mother said that he was unable to get his glasses case before he was taken away screaming, and that she worried every day whether the government would get him a new pair if they broke.

Or the parents who knew their children would be taken and asked, but were denied, the opportunity for a moment to brace the children for what was about to happen. Or the mother who was forced to watch as agents drove away with her 18-month-old baby while the baby craned his neck to get one last glimpse of her. Or all the other mothers and fathers who were not even told where their children had been taken or given the chance even to say goodbye, left only to wave through a glass window.

Lee Gelernt is the Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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