Coalition of nonprofits and grassroots work towards family reunification

August 15, 2018

It’s ironic, her teenager limiting her phone usage at night, but also another sign of the job’s increasing demands following President Trump’s family separation policy, acknowledges a director at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice, with her team at the WRC have worked long hours and hired short-term contract workers since April to combat the separation of more than 2,500 migrant children. Although Trump’s policy has been halted and the majority of children have been returned to their families, the WRC is working towards reunifying the remaining 410 children whose parents have already left the country, according to Brané.

“We really haven’t had a weekend since this started,” she said.

More than a week after the court-ordered deadline to reunite the separated families passed, it’s unclear what governmental or nonprofit organization will be responsible for tracing the remaining parents in their countries of origin and facilitating reunification.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the name of the separated parents, called for the government to take “significant and prompt steps” to find the remaining parents.

In the ACLU’s filing, they insist “the government must bear the ultimate burden of finding the parents.” And yet, according to the ACLU, the databases provided by the U.S. government show no helpful information for 120 parents.

In light of the government’s seeming lack of action in locating the deported parents, many nonprofits like the WRC are stepping forward. It’s a task that requires more hours from organizations already stretched thin.

As the ACLU’s filing underlines, the process of reuniting the remaining families requires “a degree of detective work.” An area the WRC, as an advocacy and policy-focused organization, is not setup to handle alone.

“We’ve never had to be on the ground looking for bodies in villages before,” Brané said.

This urgent need for expertise beyond their own scope has led to a new and ever-shifting network of nonprofits and grassroots movements dedicated to the reunification of the separated families.

While the WRC maintains and updates a database of the missing parents, the progress in their cases, and the final outcomes, they’ve partnered with another organization to be those boots on the ground.

Cathleen Caron, executive director and founder of Justice in Motion, admits that at eight full-time staff members, JiM is “the smallest player by far.” But their network of 44 partner organizations, known as the defender network, stretches through El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico.

Founded on the premise that “wherever migrants go their rights go,” JiM has been defending the rights of, and when necessary, tracking individuals across borders since their founding in 2005, according to Caron. A skillset and network that has proved useful when locating deported parents.

During the initial public outcry in April, JiM knew they had the network in other countries to locate parents but “felt restrained to respond” because they lacked the resources stateside, said Caron.

Joining a network of organizations alongside the WRC, the ACLU, the International Rescue Committee, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Kids in Need of Defense, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops freed Caron and her team to utilize their unique skillset.

But it can still be a painstakingly slow process.

The fact that many of these migrants fled for fear of their lives further complicates the process of identifying them, acknowledges Caron. Hesitant to reach out in any official capacity to the countries of origin, the defender network instead utilizes church networks, local contacts, fliers, and community radio spots.

With a news cycle that churns with crisis after crisis, nonprofits like JiM and WRC are networking with grassroots movements to galvanize public support.

“It’s our obligation to act when our government, with all its resources, says it isn’t their responsibility,” Roya Salehi, a spokesperson for Grannies Respond, said.

The group, formed on Facebook following the initial outcry against the forced separation, is on a cross-country journey. Thirty grandmas, in two 15-person vans, a minivan, and a camper, left New York City on July 31 bound for a rally in McAllen, Texas.

Salehi and her fellow grandmothers plan to join with five other caravans originating from Portland, Tallahassee, Madison, Dallas, and Atlanta. They’ll converge in McAllen on August 6 for what they’re calling “24 hours of action.”

“We can do this instead of sitting home and watching it on the news,” said Janice Blair, 67, a grandmother traveling with Grannies Respond.

Lawyer Moms of America, another movement that went from Facebook group to grassroots organization, hosted a nationwide event on July 28. Kids Take a Stand, encouraged families to raise funds to cover legal expenses by hosting a lemonade stand. The event raised $35,000 in one weekend, with 112 lemonade stands, in 91 cities, across 38 states, according to Natalie Roisman, a spokesperson for the group.

“Our responsibility is to make sure it doesn’t slip from the headlines,” Roisman said. “We will not rest until every one of those families is reunited.”


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