Freedom for Immigrants, a California-based nonprofit working to expose and abolish U.S. immigration detention, launched a tool on Wednesday that it says will help reunite families separated through immigration incarceration. The tool, aptly named REUNITE, is designed to allow the organization to find people in U.S. immigration detention, criminal custody, and Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters.
To use the tool, someone simply fills out a form on the Freedom for Immigrants website, which asks for information such as the missing person’s name, home country, last known location and circumstance, whether that person was separated from their children, if they are seeking asylum, and what the most pressing concern for that person is. The rest happens on the backend: After someone submits a form, their information is shared with Freedom for Immigrants and partner organizations—not the federal government—which begin the process of locating detained people and potentially reuniting them with their families.
Freedom for Immigrants and organizations it works with will then work together to efficiently help find the missing person: organizations working with the nonprofit will have access to the backend of the database in order to add in crucial details that will help locate family members and reunite them, streamlining vital information in one secure database.
The forms are stored in a secure database that is “maintained by an experienced IT staff, following security best-practices,” a Freedom for Immigrants spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. The data sent to and from the server is encrypted, the spokesperson said.
Freedom for Immigrants has been helping find people lost in the immigration incarceration system since 2010 through its network of visitation programs and a national hotline. The organization told Gizmodo it launched the REUNITE tool this week due to an “overwhelming need at this time.”
“Since we’ve been doing this work, we’ve learned just how hard it is to connect people on the inside with people on the outside and we hope to simplify that process, especially in these times,” a spokesperson said.
Thousands of children have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s merciless “zero tolerance” policy, one that healthcare professionals called “a form of child abuse.” A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that U.S. immigration agents have to stop separating children from their parents at the border, giving the Trump administration 30 days to reunite all families. But it’s proving agonizingly difficult to bring parents and children back together, according to advocates. “The systems that are in place are absolutely not equipped to deal with this,” Emily Kephart, who works for Kids in Need of Defense, told NPR.
Deborah Renua, who lives in Canada, said that Freedom for Immigrants helped locate her brother who went missing last year, according to a press release. She continued:
“My brother, who struggles with mental health issues, was 24 years old when he went missing in the U.S. immigration detention system. I had been talking to him on the phone and then one day the calls stopped. ICE’s Detainee Locator system had no record of him and the facility where he had been detained would tell me nothing.
Freedom for Immigrants found my brother in a hospital in San Diego in the custody of ICE. They advocated for me to be able to visit him, and when I showed up, the nurse told me he became responsive for the first time in more than a month. When they wheeled him in, I was able to hug him, kiss him, and laugh with him. You don’t have to be alone in this process. Freedom for Immigrants can help you reunite with your loved one.”
Freedom for Immigrants is still working to get organizations to participate, and the tool just rolled out, so the spokesperson wasn’t able to speak to the response of and use of REUNITE just yet. What’s clear is there’s an urgent need for resources like this to help families struggling to find each other in an abusive, neglectful, and demoralizing system.