Donald Trump’s family separation policy ripped about 3,000 immigrant children from their parents before an outraged public ended the tactic this past June. Countless parents were put into separate camps from their children. Plenty more were sent back to their home country, without their kids. And many of those kids have been adopted out to other families without their biological parents knowing.
Today, more than 300 children remain estranged from the families who thought they were giving them a better life. They stew in detention centers, shelters or foster care.
The Trump administration failed to create a central database with which to track the federally-instituted kidnap victims, according to The Office of Inspector General. Mothers seeking their children must therefore navigate the complex bureaucracy of the U.S. foster system, either from a detention facility or from outside the country. This is a tough request for migrant workers who don’t even know the language.
Compounding the outrage, however, is the real possibility that the parents could conceivably lose their children forever.
“Zero tolerance took the complicated practice of family separation, and made it far more complicated,” Emily Butera, senior policy advisor for the Migrant Rights and Justice division of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Grit Post. “We’ve got multiple systems that don’t understand each other or work with each other very well, creating the possibility that more children will be at risk of permanent separation from their parents.”
American parents were already laying claim to immigrant children before Trump choked the system with new kids. In Nebraska, a Guatemalan mother barely managed to reclaim her children from their U.S. foster parents, and only then after a five-year battle and $1 million in legal fees. The woman, Maria Luis, had given birth to a premature baby on her way to Nebraska, and had failed to seek healthcare for the child, as an undocumented immigrant. The courts argued, for that reason, that she was an unfit parent.
Another foster family made news when it attempted to snatch full custody of the child of El Salvador mother Araceli Ramos Bonilla in 2015, after Bonilla was arrested at the Texas border. Similar to the Luis situation, the foster parents tried to use Bonilla’s status as an undocumented mother to frame her as an unfit parent, and nearly claimed the child permanently.
The situation gets even more dangerous for immigrant mothers with U.S.-born babies. In Missouri, an American couple actually managed to permanently snag an American-born child whose Guatemalan mother, Encarnacion Bail Romero, came to the U.S. illegally in 2006 and was arrested in a raid. After a seven-year legal fight, the mother lost her parental rights to the child in 2014. Yet again, the mother’s status as an undocumented immigrant was used against her.
Missouri Circuit Court Judge David C. Dally argued that the mother had no business “smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country,” and therefore failed to “provide stability for a child.”
Native-born babies don’t necessarily have to be Hispanic to get permanently nabbed. Patricia Ice, an attorney with Mississippi immigrants’ Rights Alliance, told Grit Post that one of her undocumented clients almost lost her own child to the system when she was deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement a few years ago.
“The mother made the mistake of calling the police when she was getting beaten by her boyfriend, and the police called ICE, who deported her back to Germany,” Ice said. “While she was gone I was working to keep the youth court from terminating her parental rights. It was terrible.”
The system itself is quickly evoking outrage in the aftermath of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement and Bethany Christian Services were the organizations that placed Bonilla’s daughter, Alexa, in foster care. But Bethany, an anti-abortion agency, has previously generated controversy for having received more than $300,000 from the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, including $250,000 in 2013 (Page 27). The organization has allegedly placed more than 80 immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the border into the foster care system.