As It Happens·Q&A

This NGO is leading the search for parents separated from children at U.S-Mexico border

Despite a federal judge ruling that the government reunite them, the parents of more than 500 children still can't be found. 

Deported back to Central America, parents of more than 500 children still can't be found

People protest in Los Angeles against the U.S. government policy that saw children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. A migrant rights group in the U.S. says there are still 545 children separated from their parents. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. human rights group is leading the search to reunite children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a practice that began three years ago. 

Cathleen Caron is the founder and executive director at Justice in Motion, and along with other advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union, they reported that 545 children are still separated from their parents who were deported back to their countries of origin. Border officials haphazardly recorded some phone numbers and addresses, but Caron says they've been of no help in finding the parents.

Cathleen Caron, farmworker lawyer and human rights advocate who founded Justice in Motion. (Submitted by Spencer Tilger)

According to Caron, most of the children remain in the United States.

As for the parents, Justice in Motion employs a "defender network" of lawyers in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to look for them and protect their rights. They build cases across the border with colleagues in the U.S.

Caron spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the search for these parents. Here is part of that conversation.

As I understand, some of these families have been separated for three years. What effect do you think that's having on the kids?

It has a terrible effect on children. 

Children should never be separated from their parents and every day that goes past causes irreparable harm to these children. Some people have called it akin to child abuse or even torture.

What are the ages of these kids?

They're from [a few] months old to 18-years-old. 

Where are they? Who are they living with?

The children are in a variety of situations. They could be in foster care, or they could be with sponsors in the United States … family members or some sort of trusted people. 

Do the kids know that their parents have not abandoned them?

Some do and some don't. Each situation is really particular and it's really heartbreaking. 

The younger children, especially, don't understand why it happened and when the separations happened. They had no chance to interact with their parents. They don't know where the parent went. The parent just disappeared and they definitely feel abandoned.

The Trump administration's move to separate immigrant parents from their children on the U.S.-Mexico border has caused protests and outcry in the United States. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

We covered this story as it was developing … this was an outcome of Trump administration policy, is it not?

That's right. What we know now is that the policy began much earlier than we had thought.

We are tasked with finding the parents in the country of origin [where they] had been deported. Their children were taken away from them and they were sent out of the country, so we are trying to find all of those parents to find out what the situation is with their children and so they can have a voice over their [children's] future.

Initially, there were thousands of children who were separated from their families after Mr. Trump took office … many of them have been reunited with their parents. This is a group that has not. Does the government have a responsibility to deal with it? Why is the American Civil Liberties Union and others taking on this job?

Well, the separations were categorically and intentionally cruel. When the government did it, they had no plan or intention to reunite these families. It really fell on us, too, [and] the ACLU to stop the practice. 

Then we were tasked with cleaning up the government's mess. The government had spent a lot of time and energy to thoughtfully create this plan, to execute the plan, but there was never any intention to reunify the families. 

If they separated kids from their parents, it would discourage others from making the trek across the border.

That's right. That was the purported basis of the policy. However … to have migrants not come, they have to have countries they don't want to leave. The [Trump] administration has pretty much abandoned supporting rule of law efforts and democracy in Central America. Therefore, desperate families are making desperate choices.

A woman from the Mexico, who did not give her name, stands with her daughter as names are read off a list of people who will cross into the United States to begin the process of applying for asylum in 2018. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

How difficult is it to track down the parents of these 545 children?

It's difficult because the government records are not quality. We are getting phone numbers that don't work and incomplete addresses. 

There's a lot of on the ground work that the Justice and Motion Defender Network does to find these parents. We collaborate with Oregon human rights lawyers and human rights organizations in Central America. They are the ones on the ground, deployed, going through government records, going door-to-door, going to small towns, looking for these parents.

Has the Department of Homeland Security accepted responsibility? Has the Trump administration accepted it? I mean, The Washington Post has called this kidnapping. What is the responsibility of the government in this?

The government should be held accountable, absolutely. 

These families deserve compensation. They're dealing with children and the parents themselves are deeply traumatized. This has a really broad-reaching impact on societies. 

The ones that are back in the countries of origin, there's not much of a support network to support these traumatized families, to bring them to healing. People that have suffered a deep trauma like this, they're going to have challenges all their lives. This is not what they signed up for and the government is absolutely responsible for that healing. They should pay for it.

President Donald Trump participates in a 2019 roundtable on immigration and border security at the U.S. Border Patrol Calexico Station in Calexico, Calif. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The Department of Homeland Security, though, says that some of the parents don't want the kids back. Why is that?

The parents have been put into making a horrible decision … whether they want the children sent back to them in the country of origin where they're living, or for [the children] to stay in the United States. That is not a decision that they wanted to make. 

When they left the countries of origin, they were going to protect their child and be with their child. They never went thinking they were just going to drop their kid off in the U.S. and, you know, hopefully they have a good life. That was never what they intended for. 

Is it possible that many of these kids will never be reunited with their families?

Yes, it is possible. 

We're fighting that some of the families are able to come back and reunite in the United States. There was a group that came back nine in January. The ACLU won their right to return to the United States, to seek asylum in the United States, which was originally the intent because they were fleeing such dangerous situations. So they are reunited with their children and seeking that protection, but there's many more.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


  • In an earlier version of this story, Cathleen Caron stated that some children could still be in shelters run by the government. After publication, Justice for Migrants clarified Ms. Caron had accidentally misspoken, and in fact, none of the children the group is looking for are currently in shelters. That is making the process of reuniting those children with their parents more difficult.
    Oct 23, 2020 1:34 PM ET