Detainees are seen outside tent shelters used to hold separated family members on June 22, in Fabens, Texas. Credit: Matt York/Associated Press

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union urged a federal judge today to swiftly reunite the thousands of migrant children and their parents who were separated after entering the United States.

The ACLU asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to immediately order the government to reunify all separated children and their families within one month, and within 10 days for children under the age of 5. The ACLU also demanded the government provide parents a way to contact their separated children within a week, halt deportations of parents without their children, and stop future family separations except in cases where the child is in danger.

“Thousands of families remain separated, and many parents have no idea where their children are or how to find them,” the ACLU wrote in its brief. “With each added day of separation, the terrible trauma inflicted by the government on both parents and children continues to mount. … No more parents and children should have to go sleep wondering if and when they will ever see each other again.”

More than 2,300 migrant children have been separated since the Trump administration unveiled in April its “zero tolerance” policy, which called for criminally prosecuting all adults caught crossing the border and sparked outrage across the country. Last week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that officially ended family separations, but failed to address how the thousands of parents whose children were already separated from them will be reunited.

According to the ACLU, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has no system in place to flag a child who has been separated from their parent or identify and track where the parent is being detained. The resettlement agency has a hotline number that is supposed to give parents information on how to find their children, but the hotline regularly puts people on hold for up to half an hour, making it impossible for most parents to get information from the government, according to the brief. The hotline currently has a constant busy signal, according to court documents.

The emotional and psychological toll of separation on children can be catastrophic and lead to lifelong trauma, according child welfare organizations and medical professionals.

The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in March challenging the practice of taking children away from immigrant parents on behalf of two asylum-seeking mothers whose children were forcibly removed when they were apprehended.

Ms L. came to the United States in 2017 to escape violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo along with her 7-year-old daughter. After seeking asylum at a port of entry in San Diego, Ms L. was detained and her child sent to a detention facility in Chicago, more than 2,000 miles away. When the officers separated them, according to the lawsuit, “Ms L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother.”

Ms C. and her 14-year-old son fled Brazil and entered the U.S. in 2017. Ms C. told a border guard she was seeking asylum, but was prosecuted and convicted for entering the country without authorization. When Ms C. was sent to jail, her son was sent to a facility in Chicago and the two were only allowed to speak by phone a handful of times.

Since joining the lawsuit, both Ms L. and Ms C. have been reunited with their children. (Neither mothers’ real name is listed in the court documents.)

The government must file a response by 9 a.m. tomorrow. Judge Sabraw said he plans to issue a ruling shortly thereafter.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.