(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration had a “firm” court-ordered deadline to reunite 102 children under the age of 5 who were taken from their undocumented immigrant parents. That’s not going to happen.
At a hearing Tuesday in San Diego, Justice Department lawyers told a judge that logistical issues complicated many of the reunions and that only 38 of the children would be reunited with their parents by the end of the day. About 2,900 older kids must be returned to their parents by July 26.
“I intend to stand on the deadline,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said at the hearing in a case filed on behalf of families by a civil rights group. “The government, because of the way the families were separated, has an obligation to reunite and to do it safely and efficiently, that’s paramount.”
The children were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for prosecuting illegal border crossings, one of several directives intended to crack down on undocumented immigration. The minors were then sent to facilities around the country.
Shortly before the hearing began, the Trump administration told the court that in addition to the 38 back with their parents by the end of the day, 16 kids will be reunited shortly thereafter once their eligibility is confirmed.
“Any children not being reunified by the July 10 deadline are not being reunified because of legitimate logistical impediments that render timely compliance impossible or excusable, and so defendants are complying with the court’s order,” the Justice Department said.
Sabraw told the government to provide an update by Thursday on the reunions and explanations on why some still haven’t been returned to their families.
“The court could not have been clearer that business as usual is not acceptable,” Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit, said in a statement. “The Trump administration must get these children and parents reunited.”
In a court filing Tuesday, the ACLU said the government hasn’t attempted to contact some of the parents who were deported without their children, highlighting what the New York-based group has characterized as mismanagement of the policy.
“Their children are stranded in this country because of defendants’ actions, and yet defendants have apparently done nothing to facilitate their reunification,” the ACLU said.
The U.S. said its process for reuniting families, including checking DNA and criminal records, has already weeded out about a dozen who were wrongfully claiming to be parents or have committed crimes that disqualify them from reunification, including one rape. Sabraw said that DNA testing isn’t necessary for every family, agreeing that other documentation like a birth certificate could be used to confirm parentage.
The four families with young children who have already been united under the court order were released after the parents were secured with ankle bracelets to ensure they return for further processing of their immigration claims, immigration officials said in a conference call with reporters.
“In general that will be the process that we utilize,” they said.
The court fight comes as the government is struggling over how to respond to stories and images of children taken from their undocumented parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The episodes have pushed immigration toward the top of concerns for voters, as congressional elections near.
In the Senate, talks are under way on a narrow immigration bill designed to prevent family separations. Those involved say they have to gather more information before proceeding and that nothing is imminent.
The focus of such a measure would be to clarify how long children could be detained so they would be allowed to stay with their parents. Democrats have warned against a policy that would hold immigrant families indefinitely, while Republicans say they don’t want to go back to the practice of releasing undocumented immigrants after giving them notices to appear at hearings, derided by Trump as “catch and release.”
Two broader Republican immigration bills failed to pass in the House of Representatives last week.
Progress on Reuniting Children Under Age 5
The Department of Health and Human Services provided the following details in a conference call with the press Tuesday:
- 4 children have been reunited with their families
- 34 will be reunited by end of day Tuesday after their parents cleared criminal background and DNA checks
- 16 others will be reunited soon, possibly Tuesday, pending test results to establish parentage
- 1 child is eligible for reunification but the government is still looking into the results of the parent’s criminal background check
- 16 aren’t eligible because their parents either had serious criminal histories, didn’t pass the DNA tests or vetting uncovered evidence that the children could be at risk of abuse or exposed to disease
- 10 can’t be reunited yet because their parents are in custody
- 1 child’s parents can’t be found
- 20 children are eligible to be reunited with their families, but their parents have either already been deported or have been released and are still being screened
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