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Looking At Lasting Effects Of Trump's Family Separation Policy At The Southern Border

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Although the Trump administration ended its policy of separating families at the border a year and a half ago - June of 2018 - those separations continue. More than 1,100 migrant families have been separated since then. That is according to the American Civil Liberties Union. For those families and the ones who came before, the legacy of separation can be incredibly traumatic.

Efren Olivares is racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. That's one of the groups working with migrant families. He joins me now from McAllen, Texas. Mr. Olivares, welcome. Happy New Year.

EFREN OLIVARES: Thank you. Happy New Year to you, as well.

KELLY: I want to start with the families who were separated while this family separation policy was in effect. Can you give me a sense of how many of those families remain separated, how many have now been reunited?

OLIVARES: The vast majority of the families we have represented have been reunited. There's at least four who have not. And those families opted for their children remaining in the United States with a relative while the parents had already been deported. But I want to emphasize that they had to make that very difficult choice while being separated from their children.

KELLY: And to be clear that number, four, that you gave us - that's families who your group is working with directly. But there are more beyond that.

OLIVARES: That is correct.

KELLY: The ones who are now reunited, how are they doing? What do they tell you they need?

OLIVARES: Well, several of them have been having counseling and access to psychologists for treatment - things like post-traumatic stress disorder; separation anxiety, where now the children do not want to be apart from their mother, from their father for a few minutes because they get anxious right away. I don't want to call them side effects because they are the direct effects of the separation. Especially the younger children are still struggling to recover now, more than 18 months later.

KELLY: Yeah.

It's confusing, and I want to try to cut through some of the confusion here. We mentioned that the Trump administration has reversed course on its policy of separating families at the border, and yet that continues. That is because the government is allowed to separate kids from their parents in cases where they believe the parent poses a danger to the child or has a serious criminal record or a gang affiliation. Is that a correct representation of what the current situation is?

OLIVARES: The three scenarios in which we still see parent-child separations are the following - first, when the parent has any sort of criminal history. We've seen people whose criminal history is driving with an expired driver's license, and that is the reason for the separation. The second scenario is when the government alleges that the parent is a gang member. And this is very problematic because the parent may have no conviction at all. But based on that allegation - without any evidence, without any conviction - they separate from their child. And the third scenario is when the government, for some reason, they allege that that is not the real biological father or mother - and they proceed to separate.

KELLY: Have you seen any cases where the government has gotten it right, though - where the child was in some form of danger?

OLIVARES: Not in McAllen - at least not the ones that we have represented. There might be others in other parts of the border, but we have not seen that among our clients in McAllen.

KELLY: Does it impact your work - does it impact the people who you are working with that, at this precise moment when you and I are speaking, immigration and family separation is not dominating the news - is not front-page news at the moment?

OLIVARES: It is extremely frustrating. And I would argue that what is happening now is perhaps worse than what was happening then - because people are being sent to Mexico across the border from Brownsville, from Laredo, from El Paso, from San Diego to the streets of some dangerous Mexican cities. And it's the direct consequence of American policies that are sending children, vulnerable adults, thousands of asylum-seekers to Mexico to live in makeshift refugee camps. But it's something about it not being on American soil that makes it a lot more challenging to have the public be as outraged as all of us were 18 months ago.

KELLY: Efren Olivares with the Texas Civil Rights Project. Thank you for talking with us today.

OLIVARES: My pleasure. Thank you.

KELLY: And I want to note that NPR is in touch with Customs and Border Protection - has invited them to respond to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.