Powerful Networks: Working Across Borders to Reconnect Separated Families

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Powerful Networks: Working Across Borders to Reconnect Separated Families
By: Caroline Kronley, President, Tinker Foundation.

You probably remember the recording from 2018: leaked audio of a 6-year-old girl from El Salvador crying for her family. The public soon learned that under the U.S. government’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, immigration authorities were separating thousands of children from their parents and caregivers at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

While the uncovering of family separation by Pro Publica and others led to outrage and the official discontinuation of “Zero Tolerance,” reuniting affected families presented challenges that continue to this day. Parents were deported to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and other countries of origin, often without information on where their children were or how to seek help. The U.S. government has kept poor records on these cases and resisted calls to release what information it has. 

Despite these obstacles, nonprofit organizations soon organized to find parents and seek justice. This has entailed complex work across international borders. Two New York-based organizations (and Tinker Foundation grantees) Justice in Motion and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice stepped up to the challenge, drawing on longstanding, cross-border alliances central to their work. 

Networks in Action
The staff of Brooklyn-based Justice in Motion fits around a single table, but has teamed up with larger organizations, including the ACLU, to undertake court-mandated family reunification efforts. Justice in Motion’s unique network of “defenders” (human rights lawyers and advocates) in Central America – created to oversee labor rights cases of migrant workers who had returned to their countries of origin – directed their legal know-how and in-country access to the search for separated parents. Defenders like Dora Melara in Honduras have helped reconnect more than 350 families since 2018, work made more difficult in recent months by pandemic shutdowns and travel restrictions. Now Justice in Motion and the defenders are helping families explore their legal options, including seeking protection in the United States. 

The New York City Bar Association’s Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice recognized a similar opportunity to deploy its networks to reunite families. For two decades, the Vance Center has worked with civil society organizations and law firms in Latin America to strengthen pro bono law practice, including launching the Pro Bono Network of the Americas.

Having these relationships in place enabled the Vance Center to quickly launch its Keep Families Together (KFT) initiative. Through KFT, the Vance Center taps lawyers in 14 countries to provide free assistance for immigration cases. This work ranges from drafting witness statements and affidavits to facilitating DNA tests that establish parental relationships. The effort has helped more than 120 families separated by “Zero Tolerance” and other U.S. immigration policies to access foreign pro bono counsel, leading to reunification and in some cases legalization of their immigration status. Thanks to this effort, lawyers at leading law firms in Latin America and around the globe are drawing on their knowledge and high-level relationships to help some of the region’s most vulnerable migrants. 

While their approaches and roles are different, Justice in Motion and the Vance Center have been able to respond effectively to family separation because of their longstanding relationships across the hemisphere. They originally built these networks to address needs in Latin America, but leaders in both organizations recognized the opportunity to fill the critical on-the-ground gap in the family reunification effort. As president of a foundation that has funded justice-system reform in Latin America for decades, I find it particularly poignant that lawyers and advocates in Central America (and beyond) have played such a central role in addressing an injustice taking place in the United States. 

Lessons for Philanthropy
For funders, the work of Justice in Motion, the Vance Center, and their allies offers some broader lessons. Fundamentally, the family separation crisis reminds us that it is far easier to inflict harm through policy than to redress it. More hopefully, a key element of family reunification efforts has been the creative use of pre-existing networks, repurposed and harnessed in new ways to address a fast-moving crisis. Neither organization (nor their philanthropic supporters) could have imagined this role when they first invested in creating these networks, but without them, many more families would remain apart and without access to justice. 

When our communities—local, national, and international—face new shocks and stresses, funders should take the time to consider how existing networks and relationships could be brought to bear. As these examples show, rapid, flexible funding can help test and build the capacity of current networks to meet unanticipated – and sometimes previously unimaginable - challenges. 

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