When Daniela sets out to find someone, often all she has is a name and a phone number. Sometimes the phone number is disconnected, or it belongs to the wrong person. If she does reach the right person, they might speak not Spanish but an indigenous language. They might have trouble scheduling a longer call because their work schedule is erratic, or because they are traumatized, or in hiding.
Daniela, who asked that I use a pseudonym because of the security risks involved in her work, is a human-rights lawyer in Guatemala City. For the past several years she’s worked with the Justice in Motion defender network, a group of roughly 40 lawyers in Mexico and Central America who handle legal matters for cases involving transnational migration—collecting evidence for asylum claims, for instance, or obtaining declarations from deported workers regarding labor violations in the United States.
Recently, she has also been searching for parents who were separated from their children after crossing the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. While court-ordered deadlines for reuniting these families have come and gone, about 650 children remain apart from their parents because the government considers their families “ineligible” for reunification. These families fall into various categories: Some parents’ background checks raised a “red flag”; others waived their right to reunification, though attorneys have submitted testimony indicating that many did so under pressure and without fully understanding the forms they were signing; some the government released in the United States and lost track of. About 468 others were deported, reportedly without being asked whether they wanted to leave their kids behind. The administration currently has no plan to reconnect them.
“There is no effort being made by the government to fix this situation,” said Ashley Huebner, the associate director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center, which represents migrant children in shelters in the Chicago area. “Each day it just becomes more obvious how their role has been abdicated.”
The difficult work of finding these parents has instead been left to advocacy organizations, faith-based groups, relatives, and lawyers, who’ve rapidly formed an ad hoc network spanning the United States and Central America. Each family’s case is unique, but a common challenge is lack of information. Investigators sometimes have only a name and a disconnected cell-phone number or a vague description of a remote village to work from.
In Guatemala, although the government tracks the names of returned migrants and their date of arrival, it has no record of where they go once they’re back in the county. “The government of Guatemala is not doing anything to help reunite parents and children,” said Daniela. She relies on information provided by lawyers in the United States and tips from contacts at airports or in migrant shelters in her country. The people she’s searching for are spread all over, mostly hundreds of kilometers away from Guatemala City. They’re in varying degrees of crisis, living in extreme poverty or emotionally wrecked from having their children taken from them.