"The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children."
In 2018 Americans became aware of how many young children had been separated from their parents after coming to the United States from other countries, but separations had been happening before crying children made headlines, as far back as 2017.
Now, two years after a ProPublica investigation brought international attention to the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents in detention centers, lawyers say 545 children who were separated from their parents back in 2017 can't be reunited with their parents because those parents were deported and then lost.
According to Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney on the case and deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, some of these kids were just babies when they were separated from their parents (and the important affection, love and support a bond with a parent provides).
Gelernt tells BuzzFeed News some of these children "have now spent more than half their lives separated from their parents."
Some are in foster care, some are living with relatives...and most are probably wondering when, if ever, they will get to see their parents again.
"People ask when we will find all of these families and, sadly, I can't give an answer. I just don't know," Gelernt told NBC News. "The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children, who remain here with foster families or distant relatives."
There is a lot going on in the United States right now, but we can't lose sight of this important issue. These kids deserve reunification.
Here are 5 powerful ways to help immigrant kids separated from their families:
1. Call your representatives
If you don't know what number to call, you can either call the US Capitol switchboard or punch your info into callmycongress.com and get the direct phone numbers.
Just tell the congressional staffer who picks up the phone that you want the United States to find these children's families and support the lawyers who are looking for them.
Consider saving those direct numbers in your phone so that you can follow up with more calls in the future.
2. Keep talking about this + encourage others to make their own calls
There are a lot of debates going on about how to solve this crisis, but one thing is clear: Something's got to change, and the more people that are calling their reps, the better.
Tell your friends that you're talking to your representatives about this and ask them to call, too. A lot of people have never called a politician's office before, so let those in your circle know about how the ACLU will route their call and pass on the short script for those who get flustered on the phone.
3. Donate to Justice In Motion
As Gelernt tells The Washington Post, immigration documents for these families often have outdate or incomplete information. So tracking down parents from all the families separated in 2017 has proven very difficult.
When lawyers can't get the info they need from the records provided by U.S. immigration they turn to Justice in Motion, a New York-based group with a network of lawyers and advocates in other countries who try to track down parents in places like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.
"While we have already located many deported parents, there are hundreds more who we are still trying to reach," Justice In Motion explained in a statement to NBC. "It's an arduous and time-consuming process on a good day. During the pandemic, our team of human rights defenders is taking special measures to protect their own security and safety, as well as that of the parents and their communities."
Getting on the ground to search for these parents has been complicated by the pandemic and travel restrictions.
4. Donate to other organizations that will help migrant families
There are many organizations working to help immigrant kids and their families. All of the following organizations are trying to help children caught up in this crisis.
American Immigration Council: This organization gets on the ground at detention centers helping families, documenting conditions of detention and bringing lawsuits to challenge them.
Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project: Provides "emergency legal aid to refugee families".
Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services: Provides "free and low cost immigration services".
Families Belong Together: Is a group effort that "includes nearly 250 organizations representing Americans from all backgrounds who have joined together to fight family separation and promote dignity, unity, and compassion for all children and families
Kids In Need of Defense: According to its website, KIND "partners with major law firms, corporations, law schools, and bar associations to create a nationwide pro bono network to represent unaccompanied children through their immigration proceedings."
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center: States it is "dedicated to serving the legal needs of low-income immigrants, including refugees, victims of crime, and families seeking reunification."
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: The faith-based organization "works with refugees, children, and migrants to ensure they are protected and welcomed into local communities throughout the United States."
South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR): A joint project of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, ProBAR "is a national effort to provide pro bono legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas by the United States government. "
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES): A non-profit that aims to reunite families and help kids feel safe, this Texas-based nonprofit aims to "directly fund the bond necessary to get parents out of detention and reunited with their children while awaiting court proceedings" and "ensure legal representation for EVERY child in Texas' immigration courts."
The Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights: Provides independent Child Advocates to stand up for unaccompanied immigrant children and "champion the child's best interests".
4. Teach our children kindness and compassion
We can't change what has already happened, but we can teach our children to change the future.
By instilling empathy, compassion and kindness in the next generation we are planting the seeds for a kinder world, and those seeds desperately need to be planted.
Caring for children is not a partisan issue, it's an issue many parents all over the political spectrum are grappling with. Many have differing opinions about how to resolve the issues at the root of this problem, but many parents can agree that if they were in this position they would want to be shown some kindness.
We can teach our children to be the kind of leaders who will ensure the next generation values compassion for all families and all individuals.
[A version of this story was originally published June 23, 2019]