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The Difficulties Behind Reuniting Migrant Children With Their Families

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How did the federal government lose track of 545 families? The Trump administration separated migrant children from their parents. Officials said, on the record, at the time, it was a deliberate policy to deter more migration. A court ordered the U.S. to reunite the families with help from nonprofit groups. But this week, officials said hundreds of parents can't be found. Nan Schivone is legal director for Justice in Motion, one of the groups helping with the reunions.

NAN SCHIVONE: What's going wrong is that parents were put in criminal proceedings and children were sent to Office of Refugee Resettlement custody. And those two agencies, the Department of Justice and the Health and Human Services, didn't have a cross-checking system.

INSKEEP: I think you're trying to tell me there were two different agencies that did not share records well.

SCHIVONE: There actually were three agencies that did not share their records well because we can't forget about the Department of Homeland Security that is in charge of the Customs and Border Patrol and ICE, who were the agents that effectuated the separations.

INSKEEP: I guess on some level, did officials just not anticipate the possibility that a court would tell them to reunify families?

SCHIVONE: I think that's exactly what happened. I don't think they ever had a plan to keep track of the families or reunify them. This administration has been laser-focused on punishing migrants fleeing harm and dismantling the asylum and protection system in the United States. And I think that they were using this as a deterrent. And members of their own administration warned of the trauma and suffering that would be caused. And, of course, we're bearing that out.

INSKEEP: With the exception of very young children, can't many of the children recite their parents' names, their hometowns, where they came from, provide information that would make it easier to locate their parents?

SCHIVONE: They can, and in some cases, that's happened. And then my team at Justice in Motion is tasked with finding parents for whom that information isn't available. And, again, just to be grounded in the reality here, we're dealing with separations that started over three years ago now. So information that was recorded in some government system may not be accurate anymore. We have to remember that most of these families are fleeing harm and extreme conditions in their communities. So there are various safety concerns, and so many of them simply might not have returned to where they were coming from.

INSKEEP: What do we make of the additional disclosure that the government is unable to locate about 360 of the children?

SCHIVONE: That is troubling. And it's further evidence that there are serious problems with this administration's management of the federal government.

INSKEEP: What does it mean that they can't locate the children? Can we presume they're safe somewhere? Do we have no information at all?

SCHIVONE: Well, the fact is, when we're doing these searches for parents, we don't know whether or not they're already in touch with their children. And that's why our work to locate the parents and verify information on what they know is so essential.

INSKEEP: But I'm just trying to think of the fact that there must have been a chain of custody. I mean, how is it - what does it mean to lose track of a child who is in a system like that? Where are they?

SCHIVONE: Well, it's possible that someone in the government knows. But we just don't have that information, and that's something that the ACLU is constantly trying to suss out with the government.

INSKEEP: Is the administration making an effort, in your judgment?

SCHIVONE: A minimal effort required by federal court litigation.

INSKEEP: Nan Schivone of Justice in Motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.