More than 50 children under age 5 who were taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border are expected to be reunited with them on Tuesday, lawyers for the federal government told a judge in San Diego on Monday.
About 40 other very young children will not be returned to their parents yet, despite a court-imposed deadline, because the Trump administration either has not finished matching children with their parents or has not cleared the parents to take custody. Two children have already been reunited with their parents, lawyers said.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw – who last month called the family separation process “chaotic” and set a timetable for the government to reunite the families – said Monday he was pleased that the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union had worked together through the weekend to facilitate the return of the children to their parents.
“I am very encouraged about the progress,” Sabraw said during a hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego. “This is real progress. I’m optimistic that many of these families will be reunited tomorrow.”
He scheduled another hearing for Tuesday morning to get further updates on the reunifications, which he ordered as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. They come amid a tide of national and international outrage over such young children being taken from their parents.
Sabraw had ordered the government to return all children aged 4 and younger to their parents by Tuesday. Federal agencies have until July 26 to return children aged 5 and older who are among the “under 3,000” taken from their parents. The government separated the families as part of the Trump administration’s effort to criminally prosecute all immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including those who are seeking asylum.
Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said the reunifications on Tuesday will occur in undisclosed locations administered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has custody of the detained parents. Their children have been kept in federally run shelters and in foster homes.
“The kids are all over the country,” said ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt. “It may end up being different for the older kids. But for these kids, it’s going to be all over the country.”
The reunited families will then be released and allowed to stay in the United States pending further immigration proceedings – the exact opposite of what President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had hoped to accomplish when they launched the “zero tolerance” effort in May.
“ICE will take custody and then release the parent and child together,” Fabian said at Monday’s hearing. “They will not remain in ICE custody.”
Trump’s family-separation policy ignited an outcry from Pope Francis and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, among others. A Honduran man hanged himself after his son was taken from him.
On Monday, advocates for immigrants said there has been an outpouring of support nationwide for the soon-to-be reunited families, including offers of places to stay, and money to resettle in the United States as they await deportation hearings.
“We are seeing that people are opening up their homes,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Lyft said it will provide free rides to non-profits helping to reunite families in Texas, Arizona and other states.
Government lawyers said some reunions may not immediately be possible because parents have not been located or are still serving criminal sentences, such as for crossing the border illegally. Others are still going through the backgrounding process to ensure they are the children’s parents and fit to take custody of them.
The Justice Department has asked for more time to reunite parents – or to be excused from reuniting those who are deemed unfit parents – but Sabraw did not immediately rule on that request Monday.
Instead, he ordered both sides to provide a status report Monday night on the reunification procedures, and an update on numbers Tuesday morning.
The hearing Monday focused primarily on the status of the youngest children, and did not include details on whether the government would be able to meet the deadline for reuniting the older children with their parents later this month.
The ACLU and others have blasted the Trump administration for shoddy record-keeping after they separated the parents and children, saying the government apparently had no plan in place to eventually bring families back together.
Federal officials have said somewhere “under 3,000” migrant children have been separated overall, but their numbers have varied.
On Friday, Fabian told the judge 101 children were under 5. On Monday, she said there were 102 children in that age group, and that two had already been returned to their parents.
Also Friday, Fabian said 19 parents were deported and 19 were released. But on Monday, she said nine were removed from the United States and another nine were released here.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores had no comment on the discrepancies in the numbers.
To speed the reunions and reduce confusion, Sabraw had ordered the government to provide a list of the separated children’s names to the ACLU over the weekend.
Gelernt, the ACLU lawyer, said in court that the government had taken “significant steps” to reunite families but should be moving more quickly.
“I believe that they can still reunite some [more] individuals by tomorrow,” Gelernt said during the hearing. “We just don’t know how much effort the government’s made to find” the parents.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Tony Perry, Maria Sacchetti