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Tracking Trump’s family separation: 539 families are still apart 2 weeks after court deadline

But the Trump administration says it's reunited all the "eligible" families they separated.

(Credit: Getty Images/Diana Ofosu)

Ever since the Trump administration began splitting up families at the border, there has been a lack of transparency when it comes to the number of children separated from their parents.

ThinkProgress has launched a project to hold the federal government accountable and track the number of children reunited with their families, as well as those who remain separated.

This post will be updated as new information becomes available.

According to the most recent government figures, the administration has reunited the majority of families they’ve separated, but 539 parents and their children remain apart. And the trauma of prolonged separation is undeniable.

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Here’s what we know about kids over the age of five, or 2,551 separated children, as of the last court filing dated 12 p.m. ET on August 9:

  • 1,569 kids are reunited with parents, but in ICE custody
  • 423 kids are “in other appropriate circumstances.” These kids turned 18 years old and were released or placed with sponsors, perhaps relatives. It’s unclear if the ACLU or the judge will count the latter as a “reunification,” as they’ve prioritized reuniting kids with their parents.

As for the 539 kids still separated two weeks after the July 26 deadline, the government has either, for example, deemed the parent unfit (citing “red flag from background check”), the parent has been deported without their child, or they “waived” their right to reunification. The parents of 386 children have been deported without their kids, and the government doesn’t have contact information for the parents of 26 of those children.

Government lawyers say 20 kids weren’t actually separated from their parents.

The court-mandated deadline undoubtedly prompted the government to act more swiftly than they might otherwise — although, they still failed to reunite all families they separated by July 26. While the deadline has long passed, this process is far from over. It’s unclear when every parent and child will be back together, but until that happens, ACLU and the Trump administration will be meeting weekly with U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered a speedy reunification of the families in June.

Sabraw has called the government efforts so far “a remarkable achievement,” but also said officials still have to clean up their mess so kids don’t become “permanently orphaned.”

How we got here

Family separation at the border is a direct result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting migrants arriving at illegal entry points at the southern border since May. Because children are legally prohibited from being detained indefinitely, they are separated from their parents and sent to shelters across the country.

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The policy has not been properly enforced, however, and has even affected families who crossed at legal entry points. According to official government figures, at least seven families who arrived at official ports of entry have been separated. Additionally, the government has reported that at least one separated child and parent may have been U.S. citizens.

Many of the shelters holding the separated kids, run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have a terrible, documented history of abuse towards migrant children. As a ThinkProgress investigation revealed, an HHS-contracted shelter that cares for children separated at the border, in addition to unaccompanied minors, currently employs a man with a history of sex crimes against minors.

On June 26, a federal judge overseeing ACLU lawsuit against the government ordered all 103 children under the age of five years old to be reunited with their parents by July 10 — an act which the government failed to do, reuniting only four of the roughly 100 children under five by the deadline. The judge also ruled that all children ages five and older (2,551 children) need to be reunited with parents by July 26. 

The administration cited a host of reasons why it couldn’t meet the first court deadline, including having deported at least 12 parents without their children, referencing one parent who has “an outstanding warrant” for a DUI, and noting that two adults aren’t parents but grandparents.

There has been no update on this group of children since mid-July.

Sabraw has repeatedly scolded HHS in court for its disorderly handling of reunification — a process that has forced the agency to divert about $200 million from other critical health programs. Officials hadn’t thoroughly documented parentage of kids and federal agencies so instead began to DNA test every family member to determine a biological relationship. Some parents were even told to pay for DNA testing or other parts of the process, like transportation. One parent was told to wire around $1,900 to Western Union to be reunited with their child.

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“It is failing in this context,” Sabraw told the administration, though the judge has also credited officials for trying and acting in good faith.

In late July, the administration also admitted it may have deported roughly 430 parents without their children (those between the ages of 5 and 17).

In response to a filing by ACLU that aimed to stop further deportations, Sabraw said the government must temporarily hold swift deportations for separated families. The ACLU asked for seven days once they receive a final removal order so parents have time to think about whether they want to be deported with or without their kids, for which the government is against.

The ACLU is arguing parents need time to think through if they want to leave the United States with their child, or have their child stay and fight their immigration court case. The judge is expected to decide any day now.

Already, 12 kids under the age of five weren’t eligible for immediate reunification because their parents were deported. The government hasn’t provided an update on these kids for two weeks.

“If those parents want their children to go return with them — which, again, they had that opportunity once — we are working with the consular officials in the foreign governments to provide information that would help facilitate that, but we don’t have the legal authority to bring those individuals back into the country for reunification purposes,” the executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations within ICE, Matthew Albence, said in a press call in mid-July.

The ACLU has repeatedly stressed that the reunification process is “really a mess on the ground.” 

When families are reunited, some have been released at night in unfamiliar locations with no help. One mom and her six-month-old child were left at a bus stop until midnight when they finally obtained a ticket with help from advocates.

Then, families must reckon with the experience and trauma of separation. Some kids had trouble immediately recognizing their moms or dads when they were reunited.

“He didn’t recognize me,” Mirce Alba Lopez told the New York Times of her 3-year-old son, Ederson, her eyes forming tears. “My joy turned temporarily to sadness.”

Ultimately kids are left traumatized, citing anxiety, eating disorders, and recurring nightmares.

The ACLU asked the judge for the administration to create a mental health fund for these migrants kids. It’s unclear whether the government will do this or whether it will face any consequences for its “zero tolerance” policy, which has failed to deter families from migrating to the United States as it was originally intended to do.

For now, it still needs to reunite them with their parents.

This post will be updated as more information is made available.

NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: To compile these graphics, ThinkProgress relied primarily on the ACLU’s interpretation of the government’s court filings. We deferred to the government only in cases when the ACLU recommended we do so. The information from government court filings is framed in terms of “class members,” which we are interpreting to mean parents who have been separated from their children, even though some media outlets are representing this category as children who have been separated from their parents. Previous versions of this story indicated we got the numbers wrong, but it’s more accurate to say that we updated the way we’re interpreting “class members.”