Inside the search for the parents of 545 children separated at the border

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Sometimes, the people she’s seeking are nowhere to be found.

“There are places where you practically have to climb mountains to get there. And when you arrive, they say, ‘He doesn’t live here anymore,'” says Melara, an attorney working with the nonprofit Justice In Motion.

For years, Melara has been searching for parents who were separated from their children by US authorities as part of the Trump administration’s widely condemned effort to deter migrant families from coming to the United States.

Family separation and the Trump administration's immigration legacy
It’s a staggering statistic. But the situation is all too familiar for Melara and other advocates involved in an international effort to find families and help them reunite that continues, despite pandemic restrictions making it tougher to travel. The search includes toll-free hotlines and teams working in the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.

“This is something that is still affecting many families,” Melara says. “Until each one of the parents has been found, for me, this is not over.”

Even when she reaches a remote village, only to learn that a parent isn’t there, Melara says she doesn’t think of the case as a lost cause.

“We think of it,” she says, “as ‘now we’ve taken the first step to find them.'”

What parents say when she finds them

Melara often has little information to go on when she begins a search. Generally, she’ll start with the name of a child, the name of a parent, and the parent’s last known location — information that advocates say often turns out to be inaccurate or out of date.

When Melara reaches a town, she’ll talk with community leaders, hoping they can point her in the right direction.

When she does find a family, they can be distrustful at first. But Melara says the simple act of speaking with them face-to-face and listening to their stories brings solace and relief. And for parents that may have been struggling for months to reach their children and unsure of where to turn, Melara says it’s been rewarding to watch them reconnect in video calls.

“Some have told me. … ‘We thought that what we went through didn’t matter to anybody.’ Then, when we come, in a way, these people that thought they had lost everything have a ray of hope,” she says.

The White House has downplayed reports of the parents who haven’t been found, arguing that the administration has done everything it can to reunite families, even though the government fought in court against efforts to identify and reach out to families it separated before June 2018.

“The sad truth is that many of them have declined to accept their children back,” Deputy Press Secretary Brian Morgenstern told reporters Wednesday.

Melara said some parents she finds are happy their children remain in the United States, safe and thriving. But others are desperate to reunite with them.

Migrant families seeking asylum encounter Border Patrol agents at the US-Mexico border in June 2018.

“We’ve found different situations. … We’ve seen tears of joy and tears of sadness. There are parents who are in touch with their children. And there are parents who have no idea where they are,” Melara says.

Melara says she’s also found parents that have already reunited with their children. But still, she says, the scars of separation are evident.

“We have seen cases of fathers who, when they were separated from their children, they talk about how the children cried and said, ‘Dad, don’t abandon me.’ And cases of mothers who have lived through psychological trauma and are still going to therapy to recover. Children say they are still having nightmares, waking up screaming their parents’ names.”

The pandemic has complicated the search

Nan Schivone, Justice In Motion’s legal director, estimates nearly two dozen lawyers and advocates like Melara working as part of her organization’s “defender network” have been involved in the search for parents across the region. She never expected it would take this long.

“The problem here is that when the Trump administration decided to separate families back in July of 2017, there was no plan to keep track of the families or ever reunite them,” she says. “So here we are now, more than three years later, dealing with the fallout.”

Schivone says the 545 children whose parents they’re looking for are likely in a variety of circumstances.

“They could be in the US with a sponsor. They could be in the US in foster care. They could have aged out of the foster or sponsor system and be somewhere, not in touch with their family. It’s the gamut of options and possibilities,” she says.

“The work right now is to try to account for all the people that were separated and make sure (the parents) are in touch with their kids and that they have the chance to reunify.”

A US Border Patrol vehicle drives along the Mexico border fence on June 24, 2018, in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
By the end of 2018, a court-appointed steering committee made up of pro bono lawyers and advocacy groups successfully tracked down most of the parents of the more than 2,800 children from separated families who were in government custody on June 26, 2018. That was the day US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to stop most family separations and reunify all families that had been separated.
The committee renewed its efforts when a new group of more than 1,000 children were added to the case last year after revelations that the government had been separating families as far back as July 1, 2017, months before its controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy was announced.

Search teams had been making headway, but their efforts stalled when the pandemic hit.

“Everything sort of ground to a halt and was on pause,” Schivone says.

Since August, she says, in-person search efforts have resumed on a limited, case-by-case basis. And more than 40 parents have been found.

“They’re doing searches in masks, with face shields, trying to just make the best of this terrible situation,” she says.

Melara told KQED in September that pandemic travel restrictions in Honduras, which limit the days when people can go out based on the last number of their government-issued ID, have made the search more difficult.

“We are limited by the time we have to do our searches, we can’t stay late, we cannot stay in a hotel. Because the next day, your ID is not valid to be out anymore,” she told KQED. “It has been very limiting.”

But despite the difficulties, Melara told CNN she has no doubt it’s important to continue searching for parents.

And no matter how many dead ends she hits along the way, Melara says she’s determined to keep looking.

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.

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