(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge ordered the U.S. to reunite immigrant children who were separated from their families at border crossings and to stop detaining parents without their children, prompting a new call for Congress to pass an immigration law from the president.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego said in a ruling Tuesday there was no dispute that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of President Donald Trump’s "zero-tolerance" policy of prosecuting all adults entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico and separating any children they had with them.
“Last night’s court decision makes it even more imperative that Congress finally act to give federal law enforcement the ability to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together," Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said in an email.
Sabraw, appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush, gave the government two weeks to return children younger than five to their parents and 30 days for children five and older. He also ordered the U.S. to provide for communications between the detained adults and their children and not to deport any adult without their children.
The ruling applies to both families crossing into the U.S. illegally between checkpoints, and those who request asylum at border crossings. The deadlines might prove unrealistic for a government that has managed to reunite only a few of the more than 2,000 children that remain separated from their parents.
"The judge nailed it, but I have significant concerns about the government’s ability to successfully reunite these families within the time-frames ordered," said Michael Avenatti, a California lawyer who represents more than 60 mothers and 70 children in immigration and asylum proceedings but isn’t involved in the San Diego lawsuit. "Thus far, the level of incompetence that has been demonstrated during this tragedy has been mind-blowing."
Avenatti is a frequent Trump critic who previously sued the president on behalf of adult-film star Stormy Daniels.
Even though Trump, after an outcry, last week signed an executive order that reversed his policy of separating families seeking entry without a visa, the judge said a court order was needed because the directive included "subjective" standards for separating minors from their parents. The government has only stated it will reunite children with their families for removal from the country, the judge said.
“This ruling is an enormous victory for parents and children who thought they may never see each other again," Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents immigrants in the case, said in a statement. "Tears will be flowing in detention centers across the country when the families learn they will be reunited.”
The Department of Health and Human Services gave reporters a few details on Tuesday about the reunification process, some of which began before the judge’s ruling. The officials said it runs background checks on any adults that are being considered for reunification and uses birth certificates, genetic testing and biometrics to verify relationships with children.
Trump has vigorously defended the practice of separating the kids from parents as a necessary deterrent and blamed Democrats for allowing undocumented immigrants to "infest" the U.S.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said the family separations were necessary because all illegal border crossings are being prosecuted as crimes under the zero-tolerance policy, and children can’t go to jail with their parents.
Crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor punishable by as long as six months in prison for the first offense, and a felony punishable by as long as two years for the second offense.
The U.S. said it’s taken about 2,000 minors from their families from April to May. The ACLU has estimated the number may be double that amount.
"Measures were not in place to provide for communication between governmental agencies responsible for detaining parents and those responsible for housing children, or to provide for ready communication between separated parents and children," Sabraw said. "There was no reunification plan in place, and families have been separated for months."
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