It all started with the asylum-seeking mother who escaped violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018, arriving barefoot and hungry at the border. By the time Lee Gelernt, JD, arrived in San Diego to represent the woman placed in a makeshift detention center, her 6-year-old daughter had been taken from her, shipped off to Chicago four months earlier.
Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), promptly filed a lawsuit for her return and began collecting numerous heart-wrenching stories from other affected families. That kicked off his successful class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gelernt recently spoke about the experience at the "Advocating for Children in Migration" symposium at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The event, co-hosted by the CU Center for Bioethics and Humanities and the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, explored multidisciplinary approaches to advocacy, including arts and literature, law, medicine and music.
The continued work
The ACLU's case was successful, with a federal judge ordering the reunification of thousands of parents and children forcibly separated under the Trump administration's border policies.
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The court said all children must be reunited within 30 days; children under age 5 within 14 days; and all parents must be able to speak with their children within 10 days. The court also prohibited any deportation of parents without their children, absent of a knowing waiver. In the future, no child can be separated unless it is in the child’s best interest, such as cases of known abuse.
The reunification process revealed that more children had been separated than previously known. Unfortunately, recordkeeping was poor, and some parents had already been deported.
"What began with the government reporting around 500 separated children revealed that the actual number was closer to 5,500. The full extent remains unknown," Gelernt said.
The ACLU’s work is ongoing during the Biden administration.
“Even though this was the prior administration’s policy, the harm is ongoing, and the lawsuit is not over,” Gelernt said. “There are still some people who think that policy should be reenacted. “The family separation lawsuit is a good lens through which to look at how we try and shape the narrative and how we reach the public: what works, what doesn't work and what are the real challenges.”
Harm persists even after reunification
Gelernt shared statistics about the thousands of children separated from their parents, highlighting the emotional, psychological and physical trauma they endured. Medical professionals, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have documented this harm, describing it as "torture" and "government-sanctioned child abuse."
“It's almost impossible to fully describe the harm,” Gelernt said. “I thought I understood it, having children of my own. I understood it intellectually. Ultimately, I didn't fully understand that until I started meeting the families and children,” said Gelernt, sharing how the woman in the first lawsuit heard her daughter screaming through the detention center walls: "Mommy, Mommy, don't let them take me."
The ACLU continues to advocate for the children harmed by these policies. While the enormous public outcry that initially occurred supported the end of separation policies, Gelernt describes an “enormous political backlash” that arose during talks of financial compensation for families.
“It’s not easy to sustain public outrage,” Gelernt said.
Help the individual
Gelernt emphasized the importance of individual actions in bringing about positive change, urging attendees, whether doctors or artists, to contribute how they can, even if it’s just helping one person.
“Please don’t underestimate how important it is to show a vulnerable person that you're on their side,” he said. “Ultimately, we need to keep fighting, one day at a time. And if systemic solutions arise, that's great. If those solutions are not coming about, just do something today that helps one person.”
Photo at top: Lee Gelernt speaks at the "Advocating for Children in Migration" symposium. Photo by David Weil.
Guest contributor: Carie Behounek writes about science and healthcare.