Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix Talk Son for First Time as They Address Migrant Children Crisis

"How will it feel to explain to our son ... how we treated scared, defenseless children, some of whom may never see their parents again?" the couple writes

Five weeks after Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky confirmed the birth of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix's first child, son River, the actors and activists are opening up in a PEOPLE-exclusive op-ed about the 545 migrant children whose parents were still unable to be located as of Oct. 21. It marks the first time Mara, 35, and Phoenix, 46, who are engaged, have publicly spoken about their son.

Last week, we learned that the parents of 545 children separated at the border by immigration officers have not yet been found. The weight of that number is staggering. Five hundred forty-five children.

Like many, we were pained to realize that despite falling out of the headlines, the policy of family separation continues to damage children and parents across the world, more than two years after it was ruled illegal by a federal judge.

As new parents, it's unbearable to imagine what it would feel like to have our child taken away from us for a day, let alone years. But that's the very situation those 545 children and their parents have been living through. As Americans, it's our responsibility to continue paying attention to the plight of these families and get answers for why they still have not been located.

Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix
Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock

The practice of taking children away from their parents at the border was intended to be a deterrent. Many of the families subjected to it were asylum-seekers — meaning they came to the U.S. looking for our help after fleeing violence and danger at home. Instead, in order to send a message to other families who were on the run, we took their children away from them hoping that word might filter back home that new peril awaited anybody looking to make a similar journey.

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family separation
Migrants walk towards El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, at the border with the United States on June 21, 2018. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty

In some cases, this meant quite literally ripping children younger than 5 out of the arms of their parents, even babies under a year old. We all remember the audio that was leaked of some of those children in government custody wailing for their parents.

The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] sued the government over the family separation policy — known as "zero tolerance" — eventually winning a court order mostly halting it in late summer 2018. As part of the case, the government was told it had to hand over a list of separated parents to the ACLU and its partners so they could track them down and help them find their kids.

The government grudgingly handed over that list, which showed that more than 2,700 children had been taken away from their parents under the policy. But more than six months later, a whistleblower report from the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General revealed that the true number was far higher. In fact, thousands more had been separated during an informal test run for the policy during 2017 and early 2018.

Attorneys for the government fought to keep the public from learning about the existence of these children. And it's not hard to grasp why. In many cases, their parents were deported to their home countries after the separations while the children remained in the U.S. Those were the parents whom immigration officials hoped would spread the message: If you come to America, they will take your children from you.

family separation
Honduran asylum-seeker, 2, cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. John Moore/Getty

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We now know that despite the best efforts of immigration advocates and attorneys who have been racing across Central America trying to track those parents down, hundreds have yet to be found. Some of those parents were fleeing threats from gangs or other forms of violence, and it is impossible to say what may have happened to them.

For the children who remain separated from their parents, the damage will be lifelong. Child psychologists say that even short periods of forced removal from the care of a parent can cause irreparable emotional harm. Some of these children are no more than toddlers or have yet to reach their 10th birthday. Our hearts break to think about the suffering they've endured at our country's hands.

As cruel as these separations are, they aren't the only immigration policy implemented in recent years that harms children. Against the advice of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the government has used the COVID-19 pandemic to justify a rule blocking almost everyone from claiming asylum at the Southern border. This includes unaccompanied kids running away from danger. An investigation by ProPublica recently showed that many of those kids are being secretly held in hotels at the border, away from the sight of immigration attorneys, before being quickly sent home without ever seeing a judge.

We have to ask ourselves: Is this the country that we want? Are these our values? How will it feel to explain to our son, when he asks us about this time and how we treated scared, defenseless children, some of whom may never see their parents again? For the sake of our nation's character, I hope we will be able to tell him that America unequivocally rejected this cruelty and demanded that our representatives did everything in their power to find those missing parents.

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