Family Reunification: “Every story is sad.”

I was surprised by my first thought waking up on November 3, 2020. It wasn’t about the election, the one that not just Democrats had so much riding on, but seemingly the entire planet. I wasn’t thinking about the election-watch event planned by Democrats Abroad Canada for later that evening. I wasn’t thinking about our global GOTV effort – postcards, phone calls, podcasts, videos, lawn signs – to take back the country many of us living abroad still consider home. 

My first thought was of the children. The Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy in 2018 turned the U.S. southern border into a hunting ground. Like so many, I was horrified, mortified, shocked – there is no adequate word – by the images of children taken from their parents as they crossed the border into a country they prayed would be safer than the ones they’d fled. We’ve seen the photos, heard the cries on videos. I don’t need to describe them here. 

And, yes, thankfully Joe Biden beat out the forces behind this particular evil, but too many of those children and their parents have not. Of the 5,550 families separated at the border, only some have found their way back to one another. As of early April, more than 1,000 children have yet to be reunited with their families; the parents of 445 children have yet to even be located. 

“Intentional cruelty or incompetence?” asks Spencer Tilger, communications manager for Justice in Motion, a U.S-based non-profit founded in 2005, that’s been tasked with finding and reunifying families, especially the most difficult cases. “Who knows? The result has been the same.” Not only were many parents deported without their children, the U.S. government lost track of some of the children left behind. As Tilger explains, “The government basically said, ‘We give up. We don’t know where they are.’” (A news update this week from a Trump-appointed Inspector General, confirms not just the incompetence, but the deceit behind the policies. Department of Homeland Security officials did not, as claimed at the time, give deported parents the opportunity to take their children back with them.)

Justice in Motion – which I discovered last December when searching for an organization to donate my first CARES cheque to – has been involved with family separation since the first stunning headlines. Acknowledging that since “migration is an international issue, the solutions have to be international as well,” Justice in Motion created its Defender Network of lawyers and activists in the countries where many families are from – Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, among them. Working closely with the U.S. side of JIA and with the American Civil Liberties Union, these boots-on-the-ground attorneys navigate dirt roads to remote villages where perhaps only indigenous languages are spoken, knock on doors, piece together the barest of details. Sometimes all they have is the name of a relative; often the data is old. “There are enormous gaps,” admits Tilger.

As are the gaps in trust. After the harrowing experiences these families have endured at the hands of U.S. border officials, a trust deficit makes the work harder yet. JIM’s in-country legal counsel are especially sensitive to this, often acting as impromptu therapists. Imagine the pain and shame, Tilger says, of a deported father coming home without his child and having to admit to his family that he doesn’t know where that child is. “These families live with this everyday.”

The question is can we live with this? Can our current administration? Immigration has been a stuck place for every U.S. president since … well, since I can remember, and I was around for the Dewey-Truman election. Will we be able to guide/nudge/or shove this administration into real immigration reform? Reform that includes a pathway to citizenship not just for Dreamers, but families who crossed the border with hopes and plans, only to be sent home with so much less than they began.

Believing that time’s finally up on continued inaction, Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) re-introduced the Families Belong Together Act in late April. As Castro said, “The Trump Administrations’ cruel family separation policy will go down in history as one of America’s worst moments. While we know we can never fully do right by the children who will be forever traumatized by this political decision, the Families Belong Together Act is the bare minimum our nation owes the families … as an apology and a promise to do right by them.” 

That bare minimum would provide “humanitarian parole” to eligible parents and children, would establish a process by which eligible parents and children can be adjusted to lawful resident (LPR) status. It all sounds promising, though the word “eligible” worries me. What will it take to be “eligible?” I have family members who’ve fallen outside definitions like this through successive administrations.

But as in all things immigration, it’s better to err on the side of hope. In his first days in office President Biden signed three executive orders to kick-start some of the most pressing needs. “I’m not making new law, I’m eliminating bad policy,” he said on February 2. (CNN Politics). He appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as Homeland Security Secretary, the first Latino and immigrant to helm that position, and named Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, director of a new immigration task force. “Michelle is someone with the requisite expertise and empathy,” says Tilger, who acknowledges the “enormous challenges on the immigration front, while remaining optimistic. “The good news is that of all the issues, [family reunification] has the most bipartisan support.”

Sarah Jackson’s view of political unity isn’t quite as rosy. Jackson founded Casa de Paz, a refuge for detainees released from the massive ICE detention centre in Aurora, Colorado. If found eligible to remain in the U.S. – often after months of incarceration – detainees are unceremoniously dumped on the streets of the Denver suburb, with no money and no support to find their way to family or sponsors still waiting for them. The Casa, founded nine years ago in Jackson’s one-bedroom apartment – but which has since grown exponentially in resources and volunteers – feeds, shelters and provides transportation to the places where new arrivals should have landed in the first place. “They’re reclaiming their dignity,” says Jackson. Still, she wasn’t “dancing in the streets,” as she puts it, when Biden was elected. Not because she was a Trump supporter, but because she sees the limitations of government when it comes to immigration. “They are politicians. We are activists looking at the actual person. We’re here to welcome people humanely.”

Those limitations partly have to do with speed, or the lack thereof. Some immigration activists feel there still isn’t enough urgency from the Biden  administration. For Justice in Motion’s attorneys working in Central America, change can’t come fast enough. For Dora Melara who’s undertaken more than three dozen searches in remote parts of Honduras, it all feels urgent. Motivated by the “harm done to people who sought asylum in the U.S.,” she continues to drive to remote places, some of which can only be reached on foot in the last stretch, working to connect parent to child, child to parent. “Every interview and story I hear from the parents is sad, and it moves me,” she says. “As parents we want to protect our children.”

People like Melara, and the courageous non-profits they work with, continue to heal what has been broken. When I think of the children crying for their mamas, their papas, I think of them and it brings a measure of hope. 

Learn more about Justice in Motion’s Defender Network

To enlist the support of your senators and representatives for the Castro/Blumenthal Families Belong Together Act, please go to: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative

https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm