AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right, now an update on the migrant children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Two hundred forty-five children remain in federal custody. That's according to government data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has been tracking these children, and it was the ACLU's lawsuit against the Trump administration that led to a federal court order to reunite these families.
We are joined now by ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. Welcome.
LEE GELERNT: Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So we should first say that the vast majority of these children who were separated at the border - more than 2,000 of them have been reunited with their families. But it has been four months since the court order. Why are 245 children still in custody?
GELERNT: Yeah, that's the question, right? You know, obviously this should have never happened to begin with, and it should never have taken this long for the reunifications. I think one of the reasons is because the government deported hundreds of parents without their children, and the reunification process for those parents didn't really even start till about six weeks after the court order.
CHANG: And where are these children being held right now, these 245 children that are still in custody?
GELERNT: They are being held in government facilities all across the country often thousands of miles from where the parents are. I would say of the 245, a number - about 125 - are going to remain in custody until a sponsor takes them. And that's because we've reached the parents, and they've made the agonizing decision to leave their child in the U.S. not because they don't love the child, not because they don't desperately want the child back with them. But what they're saying to us is it's too dangerous for the child to come back.
One father said to me, look; my life is over. If I'm killed, I'm killed. And this is a father who seemed to be in his 40s or 50s. Obviously his life shouldn't have been over. He shouldn't have been thinking that way. But all he said to us was, I cannot bring my child back here. It's too dangerous. We're hopeful that the government will allow some of these parents to return to the U.S. and reunite. But right now, the only thing definite we can tell those parents is you have two choices. Leave your child in the U.S. to pursue asylum, or bring them back to Central America.
CHANG: We have heard at various points that some of the families are deemed ineligible for reunification because the parents have criminal backgrounds. What kinds of criminal backgrounds are we talking about here?
GELERNT: So they vary. We have said all along that if a parent has a very serious conviction that bears on their fitness to be a parent, even under standard child welfare laws, state law, they would not be reunited. And so those people, we've always said, would not be reunited.
GELERNT: But what we're also seeing are people not reunited because of disorderly conduct, DUIs, allegations that they may be part of a gang. And that is extremely troubling because we're talking about 4-year-old kids, 3-year-old kids who are not being reunited with their parents because the government's saying it's just too dangerous to put them in a family detention center with their child. And we could not disagree more strongly with that.
CHANG: The ACLU has reported that five children have parents who have not been reached at all. What does that mean, that the U.S. government has no idea what happened to the parents?
GELERNT: We are the ones trying to locate the parents. The government has given us phone numbers. Finally they gave us phone numbers. These are five that we have not been able to reach by phone. We remain hopeful we'll reach the five. But if we don't, we will have to look for them on the ground. We have great partners, including Justice in Motion and Kids in Need of Defense on the ground. We hope that we'll be able to reach them one way or the other. We are not giving up on the five. We will find them one way or the other, we believe.
CHANG: Lee Gelernt is deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. Thank you very much for joining us.
GELERNT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.