US & World

Reuniting Families Separated At The Border Proves Complicated

People protest immigration separation policies outside Federal Court on Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. Cases of children and families seeking refugee were being heard inside the courthouse.
People protest immigration separation policies outside Federal Court on Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. Cases of children and families seeking refugee were being heard inside the courthouse.
Matt York/AP

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A federal judge has ruled that the Trump administration has 30 days to reunite all families that it has separated at the border. But advocates and activists who have already been trying to reconnect individual migrant children with their parents say their experiences suggest the process of reunification will be complicated.

A case in point is Emily Kephart, who works for a nonprofit called Kids in Need of Defense or KIND.

Kephart is based in Baltimore, but she spends her days on the phone with people in Central America, running a program that helps migrant kids in the U.S. who are headed back to their home countries — either by choice or by deportation.

"Making sure that they get connected to community support services once they get back," Kephart explains.

Two weeks ago she got an unexpected email from Guatemala about a 6-year-old girl.

"This kid is separated from her family," recalls Kephart. "A month has gone by. And nobody has any information about where she is."

Back in mid-May the girl and her father had attempted to migrate to the U.S.

"They were separated when they entered the U.S. and detained separately. And as of then nobody had heard anything about where the girl was, who she was with, how she was doing."

The father — who is still in ICE detention — had at least managed to alert his family back in rural Guatemala. Through word-of-mouth, the family had finally reached a local community group that happens to be one of the ones Kephart has worked with.

A federal judge has ruled that within 30 days the Trump administration must reunite all families that it has separated at the border. But advocates who have already been trying to reconnect individual migrant children with their parents say their experiences suggest the process of reunification will be complicated.

Kephart's hunt for this 6-year-old girl is one example.

Her first move is to call the hotline maintained by the Office of Refugee and Resettlement – the U.S. government agency to which the Customs and Border Protection had been transferring migrant children when it detained their parents at the border.

Kephart gives the operator the girl's name and date of birth. The operator types it into a database. Then then there's a pause.

"She can't find the girl in the system," Kephart says.

It's as if this girl never existed. But then there's a clue.

"She does eventually say to me, you know, there's a girl coming up in the database whose first name is spelled differently and whose date of birth is like a month off. This could be your girl."

Except that is all the operator would say. She told Kephart she wasn't allowed to reveal where this girl with the similar name was being held.

"[I was] so frustrated," Kephart says. "I felt like we were hitting a bureaucratic wall."

But Kephart was convinced she was on the right track. So she called up a case manager at a shelter for migrant kids who she happens to know personally. And that woman was willing to look up and tell Kephart which shelter was holding the girl with the similar name. Kephart happened to know a case manager there too. So she calls up that shelter,

"And no sooner do I get the name out of my mouth, she says, 'Oh my gosh! Yes!'"

It was the same 6-year-old girl. The shelter had been told she had been separated from a parent. But that's all. "We've been — we don't have anything to go on!" Kephart says the case manager exclaimed. "I'm so glad to talk to you."

Now that father and daughter have been matched, the shelter has been trying to coordinate a phone call between them. But with the father still in detention that's proving complicated.

They're also working to set up a call with the girl's mother back in Guatemala. But here too there have been delays because they first needed to verify the mother's identity. Kephart managed to get a copy of the girl's birth certificate from the family and send it on to the case manager. But the first version was too blurry.

"We're talking about a phone picture sent by phone and then by email," she notes.

The upshot. At least five weeks since the girl was taken from her father she still hasn't spoken to anyone she knows.

"And she's six," adds Kephart.

There's another wrinkle. This family doesn't speak Spanish very well — only an indigenous Mayan language. That means it's unclear how well anyone has been communicating with this little girl.

"The systems that are in place are absolutely not equipped to deal with this," Kephart says.

And she notes, this girl is only one of at least 2,000 children still waiting to be reunited with their parents.

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