More than 600 immigrant kids are still separated from their families thanks to Trump

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Trump is no longer in office, but fallout from his cruelest policies remain.

As Donald Trump leaves the White House, hundreds of immigrant children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border have still not been reunited.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, who has led legal challenges to the Trump administration's family separation policies, confirmed in an email on Wednesday that the parents of 611 children had not yet been found, since the practice was implemented in the summer of 2017.

Border separations ramped up in 2018, the Trump administration finally confirmed in June that year.

"The Trump administration's family separation practice will go down as one of the most inhumane immigration practices in this country's history," Gelernt said.

He added that the incoming Biden administration "must do everything it can to help the families that were separated."

Trump officials only halted the practice on paper after a federal judge appointed by former President George W. Bush forced them to in June 2018. By that time, thousands of families had been forcibly ripped apart at the border, with children as young as a few months old being held in "tender age" detention facilities, separate from their parents.

However, separations did not stop, as multiple reports in the ensuing days showed. In November 2018, ProPublica reported that more than a dozen separations had taken place since the judge's order earlier in the year. And in February 2019, the Texas Civil Rights Project reported multiple children had been taken from relatives other than their parents in the preceding months and thrown into detention.

During that time, thousands of complaints were filed with the U.S. government alleging abuse in the facilities where many children were being held, according to the New York Times.

The botched family separation policy was intended to deter migrants from coming to the border, as Trump officials, including former Homeland Security secretary and White House chief of staff John Kelly, admitted.

For months, those same officials denied this was the case, with then-DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisting on multiple occasions that "there was no policy to separate families."

And once the process began, it was difficult to stop. In addition to continuing separations past the judge's order, the Trump administration had no process for reuniting families, according to emails obtained by NBC News in 2019.

"We have a list of parent alien numbers but no way to link them to children," an official with the Health and Human Services Department said on June 23, 2018, in a message to a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official.

Meanwhile, immigrant families languished in detention facilities that were dirty and often accused of neglect and mismanagment. In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General released a "management alert" showing images of detained migrants in crowded conditions and pleading for help.

"We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained," the OIG report read.

Minors were especially vulnerable to abuse. In audio obtained by ProPublica in June 2018, children can be heard wailing inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, screaming for their parents. One 6-year-old girl, who has memorized a family member's phone number, begs workers for a phone call. "My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt, and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible," she says.

Many children were severely traumatized by their time in detention, which experts warned could be permanent.

"This is government-run child abuse, and the damage can be long-lasting," Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) told the American Independent Foundation in September 2019. "I have seen these facilities and, as a psychologist, I know the harm they can cause children in particular."

Advocacy groups like the ACLU have made aggressive efforts to reunite the families since 2017.

And President Joe Biden, who was sworn in on Wednesday morning, has also vowed to reform the nation's immigration policies.

"[President] Biden will sign an Executive Order revoking a Trump Executive Order that directed harsh and extreme immigration enforcement," a transition fact-sheet outlining Biden's Day One actions stated. "This revocation will allow the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to set civil immigration enforcement policies that best protect the American people and are in line with our values and priorities."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.