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Parents Of 545 Children Separated At U.S.-Mexico Border Have Not Been Located

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Federal court filings made this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department say that the parents of some 545 migrant children who are currently in the United States have not been found. These parents were separated from their children at the U.S. border by border officials under President Trump's zero tolerance policy from 2017 to 2018, and the filing says the parents are now unreachable.

Cindy Carcamo covers immigration for the Los Angeles Times and joins us. Cindy, thanks for being with us.

CINDY CARCAMO: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What does it mean that these parents are unreachable?

CARCAMO: I think people kind of have to understand that some of these parents are in really remote regions, places that are really even tough to get to by vehicles, where you have to basically park your vehicle and trek in, walk in for a good day's worth of walking. It's tough terrain up there, basically. I mean, when I was on the ground...

SIMON: Yeah, 'cause you've tried to find a number of these families on your own.

CARCAMO: Right, right. It was me and a videographer that were following a group of attorneys - Guatemalan attorneys in Huehuetenango, basically in the highlands of Guatemala. The people on the ground don't necessarily have a full name or full address, or they might have the wrong name or the wrong address. Or people move or they are hiding because, you know, it was one of the reasons why they left in the first place with their child because they would fear for their lives. So, you know, they get deported back, and they're hiding out.

Also, language difficulties in Guatemala - you have more than a dozen different indigenous languages. There are people who don't speak Spanish.

And, you know, there's also - in some of these communities, there's a lot of distrust. They don't trust strangers. There's a history of lands being taken away and things of that sort and kidnappings. And so that's another impediment, too. Almost everyone we spoke with wanted their child back - the people that we could reach. But, you know, at first, some of them were very skeptical and didn't want to talk with us, didn't know why we were asking about their child. They were wondering if we were trying to extort them. These are all the obstacles - right? - that these on-the-ground people - the searchers, the people who are looking for the parents - are having to face.

SIMON: The court filing says the search committee's found the parents for nearly a third of all the youngsters - that's about 1,500, according to government lists - who were separated from their parents during the zero tolerance policy. The filing also says the search committee - this is a quote - "has yet to identify any families that definitely seek to have their child returned to their respective country of origin." What do you make of that?

CARCAMO: There's a reason why some of these people fled, right? I'm not saying all, but I think some, especially asylum-seekers, do have legitimate fears of whatever it is that's in their country that's driving them away, basically, that made them ask for asylum in the first place. And so they may not necessarily want their child to come back to these dangerous situations. So that's one thing that I think we should keep in mind.

And I think, you know, right now in the courts, what they're trying to fight for - at least the ACLU - is for these parents to be reunited with their children in the United States and not necessarily at their country of origin. And the Department of Homeland Security is saying no. You know, if they want to be reunited, the children should go back to the countries of origin.

SIMON: Which forces the parents to confront bringing their child back to what they consider to be an unsafe situation.

CARCAMO: Right. It's a difficult decision to make, I think, as a parent, you know? I did hear of a few, like, handful of cases where the parents wanted to - you know, the child was maybe a little older, 12 or 13, a boy. And they thought that that, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

CARCAMO: ...That he could fend for himself, maybe, in the United States and would rather give him a chance at life in the U.S..

SIMON: And, of course, during the presidential debate, President Trump said that President Obama had begun these policies, had built the original cages for children. Is that true?

CARCAMO: The Obama administration did separate families, but it was not at this scale, and it was not systemic as it was under the Trump administration. In addition, those cages that everyone talks about - those children in cages - the Obama administration did build these temporary shelters. And, yes, they looked like cages, and the children were being kept there, but they were not separated from their mother or father by the U.S. government. They were unaccompanied children.

SIMON: Cindy Carcamo is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARCAMO: Thank you for having me.

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