Trump Administration Says It Will Take Years To Reunite Separated Families

In a recent court filing, US officials said that it may take two years to identify and reunite thousands of immigrant families separated at the US-Mexico border. The two year figure is the result of complexities associated with sifting through records, conducting manual reviews, and data analysis.

Families were separated immediately when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy exactly a year ago. President Donald Trump struck down the measure through an executive order amid mounting political pressure and outrage from public opinion during the summer of 2018. Despite Trump’s new directive, 2,300 children were already separated from their families by last spring, and federal agents said that they would not be immediately reunited.

Though a federal court order forced the reunification of families, a January report from a government watchdog found that the administration did not know the exact number of children separated from their guardians. The office of the US Inspector General identified 2,737 minors who have been separated from their families and guardians, but noted that thousands more may have been separated since 2017.

"There was no effort underway to identify those children," Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for the Office of Evaluation and Inspections, told CNN in January. She noted that her office and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “faced significant challenges" when identifying the number of children separated.

The court filing found a string of hurdles for the reunification of families, including the fact that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not begin tracking separated families as a searchable data set prior to April 19, 2018. Conducting a manual review would prove overwhelming for the Office of Refugee Resettlement because it would require teams to peruse about 50,000 case files. According to CNN, officials proposed the use of data analysis to detect which records pertain to separated children, but have the daunting task of manual reviews. The entire process — spearheaded by officials from HHS, ICE, and CBP — would take 12 months, and possibly up to 24 months, officials noted. The proposed plan faced backlash from advocacy groups.

"We strongly oppose any plan that would give the government up to two years to find these children. The government's proposed plan reflects the administration's continuing refusal to treat these separations with the urgency they deserve," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU) immigrant rights project and the lead attorney in the ALCU’s family separations case, told CNN in a statement. "We are talking about the lives of children, potentially thousands of them. The government was able to quickly gather resources to tear these children away from their families and now they need to gather the resources to fix the damage."

The court filing’s scathing revelation comes amid a major shake-up in the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles were removed from their posts this week, while US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Lee Francis Cissna and Office of the General Counsel’s John Mitnick are likely to be discharged. DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady was also forced to resign on April 9, TIME reported.

Trump said on Tuesday he’s not contemplating resuming the zero-tolerance child separation policy. Instead, he blamed former President Barack Obama for establishing the practice.

“Obama separated the children, by the way. Just so you understand,” Trump said. “Those cages that were shown — I think they were very inappropriate. They were built by President Obama's administration, not by Trump.” Although Obama earned the moniker "Deporter-in-Chief" during his administration, the policy in question was implemented under the Trump administration.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review,, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.