Deep into the extraordinary effort to find deported parents who remain separated from their children, attorneys are learning that about two-thirds want their children to stay in the U.S. rather than reunite as a family in their homelands.
"We've had some very difficult conversations with parents this week, where the parent is ultimately saying, as much as they'd like to be with the child and as heartbreaking as it is, it's too dangerous for the child to come back," Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told a San Diego federal judge Friday.
The decisions show something government officials have long argued: that migrant families from Mexico and Central America who cross illegally into the U.S. do so largely to get their children across. Having the children flown back to their home countries — where many say they are fleeing gang violence — would seem counterproductive to the parents, even if it results in long-term separation.
Gelernt said parents with older children tend to lean more toward keeping them in the U.S. because of their vulnerability to gang recruitment. Parents of younger children tend to choose reunification.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in June ordered all children separated from their parents under the Trump administration's immigration policies to be reunited, once the parents were out of custody on their illegal entry prosecutions.
The first phase of the effort focused on parents who were in immigration custody. Within a month, about 2,000 children in government shelters were reunited. But about 400 more parents had been deported before being reunited.
Now, attorneys and volunteers are trying to find those parents in their home countries and provide them legal counsel on their options. The legal counsel has been especially important at this stage, attorneys for the ACLU say, because many parents have reported being coerced into making decisions they don't understand.
'It's extremely difficult'
Of the 162 deported parents who have made decisions on reunification, 109 thus far have chosen to allow their children to stay in the U.S. Children who stay will be allowed to pursue asylum claims, during which they will live in government shelters or be placed with family members or foster families. If they lose their asylum cases, they would be sent home.
"It's one of those decisions these parents are facing," Gelernt said. "It is extremely difficult … but they are too scared to let their children come back."
Fifty-three parents so far have chosen to reunite, which means having their children flown home. Lawyers are still trying to contact 47 parents.
Gelernt got a look at the difficulties involved. He spent the past week in Guatemala, where volunteers are navigating treacherous roads, distrustful communities and remote villages to find parents.
In some areas, gangs enforce night curfews, he said, presenting difficulties for parents who work all day, or for outsiders to come in and ask questions.
During the hearing, Sabraw asked whether the government was leveraging all available resources to help in the search effort. Assistant Deputy Attorney General Scott Stewart assured the judge that the government was "putting a lot of work into this."