News & Politics

A Judge Ordered the Government to Reconnect Migrant Kids With Parents. But These Private-Sector Groups Are Doing the Work.

It’s a difficult but crucial job.

Christie Turner-Herbas and Michelle Brané Photographs of Turner-Herbas and Brané courtesy of subjects

In 2018, when a judge halted the “zero tolerance” practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border, it marked the end of one of the Trump administration’s most notorious policies. But for some advocates working on the cause, it actually was the beginning: Someone now had to lead the effort to get the more than 5,000 children back to their families. As of this fall, according to NBC News, the parents of 666 of these children still haven’t been located.

While many people assume the government is responsible for undoing the damage it caused, a pair of Washington nonprofits have actually been helping lead the difficult effort. In 2018, the two organizations—Kids in Need of Defense and the Women’s Refugee Commission—joined a steering committee that a court has charged with finding the missing family members.

It’s been a painstaking endeavor. Without having put a reliable tracking system in place, the Trump administration scattered the migrant children into foster care and detention facilities across the United States while deporting many parents to their countries of origin—where some immediately went into hiding due to the very safety concerns that had caused them to leave in the first place. Working off inaccurate and incomplete government records, the nonprofits have had to rely on meticulous detective work and shoe leather to locate these family members.

“A lot of this was literally just starting to call people and following the leads,” says Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission. “You’d call the number and they would say, ‘Oh, that person isn’t here—we don’t know them.’ You’d try to explain why you were calling and then they’d say, ‘Well, I can get them if you call back tomorrow at 4 pm.’ Sometimes I talked to people who said, ‘Oh, they went back to the US to find their kid.’ ”

Although the groups have succeeded in locating hundreds of parents, actual reunions have proved harder. Because there’s no legal process for deported parents to return to the US to rejoin their children, many of these families are still apart more than two years after they were separated.

Nevertheless, the advocates remain undeterred. “I hope that we can hold the government accountable and create a record of what happened,” says Christie Turner-Herbas of Kids in Need of Defense. “We’re trying to make these families whole again in some way.”

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.
Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.