David Xol reunited with his now 9-year-old son Byron last week at Los Angeles International Airport after the U.S. government separated them at a border detention facility in May 2018. U.S. authorities deported Xol to Guatemala, while his son stayed in various government facilities before landing in a host home in Texas. Xol was among nine parents who were able to return to the United States after deportation to reunite with children they hadn’t seen in a year and a half or longer.
“They all kind of hit the lottery,” said Linda Dakin-Grimm, an attorney who represents one of the parents returning to the United States. “There are so many people out there who have been traumatized by the family separation policy whose pain is not going to be redressed.”
The United States’ practice of separating parents and children apprehended at the border officially ended in June 2018. But many children are still waiting to reunite with their families.
The U.S. government took thousands of migrant children into custody after President Donald Trump implemented a zero tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings in 2018. Widespread protests broke out across the country, and a Guatemalan mother sued the U.S. government after authorities separated her from her son. Following mounting criticism, Trump signed an executive order asking the Department of Defense to help house immigrant families caught crossing the border illegally, effectively ending family separation. Days later, a judge ruled against the two-month-old policy.
The United States took some children into custody before the zero tolerance policy went into effect, as well. The Department of Health and Human Services noticed an uptick in children separated from their parents at the border in 2017.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials told a federal judge in San Diego that they have a solid count of the children separated under the policy and precursor programs. The number comes to 4,368. But officials are not confident they know how many separated families have reunited. Estimates of the number of migrant children still living apart from their parents range from the hundreds to the thousands. The United States deported at least 470 parents while their children remained here, complicating reunification efforts. Some children stayed temporarily at facilities before going to stay with a sponsor, usually an extended family member. Others went to shelters or foster homes. Agencies often did not properly record the placements, and finding deported parents in South American countries proved difficult.
In April, the U.S. government acknowledged it could take up to two years to identify and reunite families that are still separated. In September, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the United States to allow 11 deported parents to return to pick up their children and denied the requests of seven others. He also ordered the government to identify the children separated before the zero tolerance policy and start the process of reunification.
Family separations at the border still occur, but only in specific circumstances. Sabraw ruled on Jan. 13 that the Trump administration had the authority to detain children apart from their parents at the border if officials determined the adults were unfit or dangerous, among other reasons. The American Civil Liberties Union had sued the federal government for separating 911 children from their parents at the border after the policy was rescinded in June 2018.