Family Reunification

Family Reunification – How Does It Work and Who’s Involved?

A Q & A with Carol Anne Donohoe, Al Otro Lado’s Managing Attorney on Family Reunification

Last week in an effort to better understand the process of family reunification, Latina Republic spoke with Carol Anne Donohoe, the managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s Family Reunification Project. Al Otro Lado has been the leading non profit organization representing separated, then deported, parents in their reunification with their children. As the managing attorney for Al Otro Lado’s family reunification work, Carol Anne Donohoe has extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the reunification process and the actors involved. She also has experience with the Biden Administration Task Force and provides important insight into their collaboration with NGOs and private organizations. Ms. Donohoe’s detailed responses demystifies the realm of family reunification for the general public. Latina Republic gives a huge thank you to Ms. Donohoe and Al Otro Lado for their valuable time. 

Latina Republic: What does the day to day process of family reunification look like for you and your team?

Carol Anne Donohoe: Well, it all depends on where we are in the process. Right now, we have been approved for a lot of returns. Prior to that it was more collecting data, interacting with the clients, and interacting with Justice In Motion state and the steering committee who referred the clients to us. Right now, it’s very much about logistics.

Latina Republic: Can you describe the sequence of events in the whole family reunification process?

Carol Anne Donohoe: Overall, since day one?

Latina Republic: Does a parent contact you and then you find their child? What does that process of reuniting them look like?

Carol Anne Donohoe: There are different groups in that process. Initially, the families that we originally returned were pretty much the ones that we had located or that Justice In Motion had located. That was when this first happened and that was the big drive to find people. 

And just to be clear, we represent families who were deported after separation. Our family reunification project currently represents parents who were deported after separation. They’ve been the ones who have been separated for the longest because there was no real pathway to get them back before this task force. 

The ACLU filed the Ms. L class action lawsuit, the government handed over to the Ms. L Steering Committee a list of people that it had on record as having been separated and initially that covered only those who were in the United States in government custody at the time. There was a very short time window where the government had to reunify all the ones who were already in the United States. And that was around over 5000 separations, I believe, and now there are over 1000 who were deported after separation. When you hear about the ones who have yet to be found, a majority of them are ones who were deported after separation. 

And then the steering committee took that list and tried contacting people. For the people that they could not contact, they reached out to the Justice In Motion Defenders, and these are attorneys and other people in Central America who actually went village to village, door to door, finding people. This group of people that we represent now initially were screened based on the very narrow criteria that the judge in the class action lawsuit set up for returning deported parents. 

Once the steering committee would do that intake, if it was a fit, then they would refer the parents to us and we would represent them in their actual reunification. So, advocating for their return, evidencing the harm, and working with the ACLU and other attorneys to make sure that they get returned. And that’s where we are right now. 

Al Otro Lado has returned the most deported parents, and once they get back here and reunify, that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning of another chapter. And there are a lot of things that are needed to help them get whole. They need attorneys, they need mental health services, they need financial resources, a support system. And so we took that on. 

We do also provide those supports to the families that we return once they get here. And right now, it’s a lot of the logistics of returning the families that were approved that we represent and who are working through networks that we have, including, as I said, Justice In Motion, to get them their passports, their travel documents, to assist them with filling out the application that’s being required by the task force and all of that.

Latina Republic: So before getting all their travel documents and information, are you advocating for them to get humanitarian parole to stay in the U.S.?

Carol Anne Donohoe: Right now, the task force has agreed to give these families humanitarian parole for three years, but of course, we don’t believe that that is adequate. They need to have some sort of permanent status. The families that we already reunified here under the lawsuit are in asylum proceedings. And as you can imagine, that’s very traumatic. It’s very long term. They’re stuck in limbo. And even with the humanitarian parole, you don’t have that fear of being deported, but you’re still stuck in limbo. And what these families deserve is a remedy for the harm that we’ve inflicted on them, not to be further traumatized.

Latina Republic: Yes, of course. And you said Justice In Motion Defenders are the primary actors on the ground finding families in Central America? Are there any other NGOs or governmental officials who are heavily involved in that as well?

Carol Anne Donohoe: As of now, the government has not been involved in it at all. Everything that’s been done, anyone who’s been reunified, it’s happened through the work of NGOs and their funders and I don’t anticipate that that’s really going to change as far as locating families.

Latina Republic: Have any Central American governments been involved in locating families?

Carol Anne Donohoe: No. Not that I know of. But again, you should probably speak with Justice In Motion on that issue. This has  all been an NGO led effort…and ACLU.

Latina Republic: What is Al Otro Lado’s relationship with the Biden administration’s task force?

Carol Anne Donohoe: As you know, we represent a group of people who were already identified and represented for return on day one of the Biden administration. We have been on the calls on how to get back this initial group. And at the same time, they’ve [(the initial group of parents)] been sort of a test case for developing the process. 

I can say there has been frustration because we are the ones who are well aware of the parents’ situations, that they are in danger, beyond not seeing their children. And I don’t believe the sense of urgency is the same from the administration, working through the process as if you’re one-on-one, dealing with the families who are harmed. 

I do believe that there are players on the task force who are very much committed and pushing forward these reunifications. I also think that there’s been more bureaucracy than was necessary and that perhaps these ones who were identified should not have been made to be the test case. They could have been returned sooner. But all of that being said, I am well cognizant of the fact that they wouldn’t even be returning if Biden had not been elected.

We wouldn’t be having this conversation. We would be fighting one-on-one for each parent to return. It was not of their making. They are returning families. And there is that hope that we’d never had before. But as I said, each day for these families, it’s another day of separation and another day of danger.

Latina Republic: In terms of the task force, what are they more heavily involved in at the moment?

Carol Anne Donohoe: Well, at the same time as the task force is doing what they’re doing, the ACLU is in negotiations with the DOJ on the Ms. L litigation. So at the moment, the Task Force is waiting for what comes out of that, which certainly should be very inclusive, should include beyond mental health services, it should include, as I said, a legal status and, legal services as needed, redressing the harm.

Latina Republic: So right now, from your perspective, what do you think the task force is doing well?

Carol Anne Donohoe: As I said, there have been hold ups. Had there been better communication in the beginning, especially with attorneys who do this work, the process could have been streamlined a lot sooner. 

That being said, now that things are in motion, they have been very responsive. And, the process of bringing the families back and identifying issues has become streamlined. As I said, I think that there are hearts that are in the right place and very much focused on getting these families returned. 

I appreciate that and I appreciate that this is not easy. This is something that has never had to have been done before. But again, my mindset is always on the parents. I would have liked them back, four months ago. But I do feel, as I said, that there are members of the task force who are very much invested in getting this done and getting it done right.

Latina Republic:  Al Otro Lado is the primary nonprofit representing the deported parents. So how did Al Otro Lado become this leading organization?

Carol Anne Donohoe: Well, there have been different iterations of the groups we have represented; there was the larger group returned by Al Otro Lado in March, 2019, and then there were those who were returned under  the Ms L. litigation and that was very narrow as to the process for parents who were deported. 

There was really no pathway to re-enter for them, even though it could be argued that they were, I don’t want to say the most harmed because everyone was harmed…but not only were they separated, which Physicians for Human Rights has defined as torture, but then they were sent back to their home countries not knowing if they’ll ever see their child again. 

The way the litigation had it set up, it was a very long process where you first had to ask the government [under Trump] if they were going to be kind enough to allow these families back. And categorically they said no. We presented certain families, not just a group. Will you bring these families back? We presented certain cases to them and said, can you allow these families to return? 

And categorically they said no with no reasoning. And they didn’t apparently even have to have reasoning. So then it had to go to the judge. And that’s very time consuming. And our litigation director, Erika Pinheiro, decided, well, let’s see if we can’t move this faster. And there was a very brief window, under Trump, where they had started metering people at the border and limiting asylum seekers, but before it reached other locations, we brought in fifty two family members, twenty nine families and their family members to the border and basically not knowing what was going to happen, but saying these are separated families, let them in. 

After a nine hour battle, they did let them in. We had made connections and set up networks to do that, and so I think our track record showed that we have the capability to fight for these families and the reunification, whatever it takes. I think the steering committee at one point was looking for an organization or attorneys who would take these cases on and we agreed to do it as far as we were capable. 

As I said, right now, it’s just a small number out of the hundreds that are out there. But that was because it was such a narrow interpretation of who could be returned. Now under the task force, it’s not quite so onerous. And so we hope to take on more and advocate for them.

Latina Republic: That’s wonderful. It’s very, very important work. We definitely admire you and everything Al Otro Lado is doing.

Carol Anne Donohoe: Thank you. 

Latina Republic: Once reunited, do these families have a choice as to where to rebuild their lives? 

Carol Anne Donohoe: Everyone who returns, their child is here, so they do have a place to go. Most of them are going where their child is. Some have separate sponsors so they already have a location where they’re going. And we do work with any organizations we know in that area. We’ve been getting wonderful support from some of the UCC and UUC congregations. The reunited families are going to be all over the country.

Latina Republic: Last question. What would you like to see the Biden-Harris administration do to reunite families faster?

Carol Anne Donohoe: There’s so much that I would like to see them do more of on the immigration front. But, I think that at one point Secretary Mayorkas was asked about the families who were identified, and this was probably a month or two ago, he said, well, if they’ve been identified, they will be reunited. 

And our families were identified on day one and we knew how to get them back. All we needed was the government’s approval that they would; assurance that they would be allowed in. I would have liked to see these families returned as the process was being worked out. Second, I would like to see them really look at the process that they’re asking people to do in order to get back into the U.S. What I would like to see them do, and what they said that they would do, is recognize that what their job here is, is to remedy the harm.

They are remedying a harm, a crime against humanity that the United States inflicted upon these mothers, fathers and children. So they should act with that urgency. They should act with that mindset. And I would love for them to actually speak with the parents who were affected, because I don’t believe that’s something that they have done. We had the embassy tell us: “Well, the parent in Honduras or Guatemala can just go online and fill out this form.” And I thought: do you not understand the population you are serving here?

They’re not going to have a laptop and high speed Internet. I think there’s just a huge disconnect between the bureaucracy and the policy people and the people who are actually affected. And they need to close that gap.

In conclusion…

Carol Anne Donohoe: These are just my frustrations on behalf of the families. We are gratified for all the families who will be returning this weekend. Members of the Task Force have worked long hours to make this happen. I look forward to having ongoing discussions, that include the parents and children affected, to streamline this process and work together until every family is reunited. 

Latina Republic: Once again Latina Republic would like to thank Carol Anne Donohoe for lending us some of her extremely valuable time. And we would like to thank her and Al Otro Lado for the vital work that they do. 

Please check out Al Otro Lado here: 

Visit us here learn more about the Biden Administration’s Family Reunification Task Force, Strategies and Process.


Erica Drufva | Wheaton College

Erica Drufva (she/ella pronouns) is pursuing her undergraduate degree at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. She is double majoring in Hispanic Studies and International Relations. Erica has a passion for oral history, especially surrounding migrant experiences. She aspires to work in immigration law and immigration policy analysis so she can make a positive impact on the lives of people who are migrating to the U.S. In addition to her interest in advocating for migrants, Erica also strongly supports human rights efforts such as the fight for racial justice, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and lgbtq+ rights. She is excited to work with Latina Republic in order to uplift migrant stories and learn more about migrant issues on a deeper, more personal, level.