(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. judge won’t relax a July 10 deadline just yet for the government to reunify immigrant children younger than five with their families.
The government holds 101 young children separated from their families at the Mexican border as a result of the U.S. "zero tolerance" policy to prosecute all adults crossing into country illegally. Some of the family members have already been sent back. The U.S. is holding almost 3,000 children in total.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government to provide him a list with the status of each young child as well as details of the procedures, including screening the criminal history of the parents, that the Justice Department claims is slowing down its compliance with his order to reunify the families.
"I would stand on the deadline," Sabraw told Sarah Fabian, a lawyer for the government, at a status conference Friday. "Being overly-inclusive is encouraged."
The judge asked Fabian if she’d meet with American Civil Liberties Union lawyers before another hearing that’s scheduled for Monday, but she answered, "I have dog-sitting responsibilities that require me to go back to Colorado."
The government is grappling with the backlash to its policy that caught both immigrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally as well as those seeking asylum at border entrances. President Donald Trump abruptly changed course last month and ordered a temporary halt to family separations.
"The government does not wish to unnecessarily delay reunification," U.S. Justice Department lawyers told Sabraw in a court filing. "At the same time, however, the government has a strong interest in ensuring that any release of a child from government custody occurs in a manner that ensures the safety of a child."
The government’s request appears to contradict a statement Thursday by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who said the U.S. would return immigrant children under five by July 10 to comply with the court order. Parents of some of the youngest children were moved to detention centers closer to their kids so they can be reunited quickly once they’re released.
U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, was on a conference call Friday with HHS to discuss the issue and said in a midday tweet. “It was Orwellian in its overconfidence and vagueness. I am more, not less worried for these kids.”
Before the U.S. reunites a child with a parent, it must determine whether a parent is fit or doesn’t pose a danger to the child, Jonathan White, deputy director for children’s programs at the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, said in Thursday’s court filing. Releasing a child without a careful review could "expose him or her to trafficking or abuse," he said.
Children in custody and their parents are also undergoing DNA cheek swabs, which will take about a week to confirm a match, the U.S. said.
Lawyers for Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an additional filing on Friday that they’ve reviewed the criminal and immigration background of 300 parents in custody and that 1,400 more need to be scrutinized. Some parents of children 4 or younger have criminal convictions, including for drug offense, assault, rape and robbery, and would be excluded from the judge’s reunification order, the lawyers said.
“The judge made it very clear he wasn’t going to allow the Trump administration to drag its feet,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “We oppose the administration’s efforts to further prolong the suffering of these families.”
The case is Ms. L. et al v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al, 18-cv-428, U.S District Court, Southern District of California (San Diego).
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