(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government says it’s working to comply with a deadline it missed to reunite all 102 migrant children under 5 who were separated from their parents, even as it faces a more formidable deadline, with more daunting logistics: rejoining almost 3,000 older kids by July 26.
Congress is still struggling with how to respond to stories and images of children taken from their undocumented parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it isn’t clear a quick solution is in sight. In the Senate, talks are under way on a narrow immigration bill designed to prevent family separations, but those involved say they have to gather more information before proceeding and that nothing is imminent.
At a hearing Tuesday in San Diego, lawyers for the Justice Department told U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw that logistical issues complicated many reunions and only 38 of the 102 younger children would be rejoined with their parents by the end of the day. The government, with its formidable technology and manpower, was able to reconnect less than half of the specified children in two weeks.
That raises a bigger question about how it will meet the the more forbidding deadline a couple of weeks from now: Sabraw, who set the July 10 cutoff for the younger children last month, gave the government 30 days to return the remaining children over 5.
So far, the judge has been patient, and seems satisfied with the progress to date and what appear to be good faith efforts by the government to reunite the families or to explain why it needs more time to do so. Nonetheless, he didn’t extend the deadline.
“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,” Sabraw said Tuesday at a hearing in San Diego.
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 parentage 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.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina both said that bipartisan negotiators are making progress on a bill designed to keep undocumented immigrant families together at the border while their claims are considered. It hasn’t been agreed to yet, and Tillis said it’s unclear whether or not they will get there this week.
“It’s coming along,” Feinstein said.
Tillis said the group is looking at something narrowly tailored that would increase the number of immigration judges from about 460 under current authorizations to 700 and also boost the number of immigration law attorneys serving in their courts by around 500 from current levels. The negotiators also want to establish quality standards for residential facilities for families.
“We want to create very clear standards so we can dispense with people creating pictures of tent cities or other things,” Tillis said.
He said they are still trying to agree on how to handle the 1997 Flores settlement that is yielding separations of some children from their parents because it says children cannot be held for longer than 20 days. He said the lawmakers in the talks -- which also include GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois -- are trying to agree on language that tailors the settlement so federal agencies can keep families together.
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 month.
“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 Tuesday after the hearing in San Diego. “The Trump administration must get these children and parents reunited.”
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, and that other documentation such as a birth certificate could be used to confirm parentage.
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.
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