Children draw on placards during a ‘Families Belong Together’ rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photographer: Mauricio Palos/Bloomberg)

U.S. Defends Family-Reunion Process as Thousands More Await

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration says it’s done everything the court’s required to try reunite 103 of the youngest children separated from their families at the southern border, even as nearly half of those kids remain in federal custody three days after a deadline to return them to their parents.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw may decide Friday whether the government’s efforts to undo the damage done by its separation policy have been sufficient, or if the procedures require greater oversight as the July 26 deadline to reunite all 3,000 kids approaches.

The American Civil Liberties Union, plaintiff in a San Diego federal lawsuit resulting in a court order to reunite the families, painted a grim picture of what the reunification process looks like.

Among the 58 children under age 5 that the government has reunited in the wake of its “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal entry is one family that was told to wire about $1,900 to Western Union “to pay for reunification,” the civil rights group said in a court filing.

In another instance, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents dropped off a parent and children, including a recently reunited six-month-old, alone at a bus stop without a ticket, the group said, citing information from family attorneys and service providers.

In a joint status report Thursday, the ACLU made seven recommendations to enhance transparency of the government’s reunification program. They include: publishing a daily list of parents who have yet to be reunited with their kids; a 24-hour window before reunification to ensure confirmation; and funds to pay for mental health screenings and counseling.

Sabraw will hear arguments at 1 p.m. at a hearing in San Diego and could make a decision on the ACLU’s suggested steps then or take the suggestions under submission.

As of Thursday morning, the administration had returned 58 of 103 children under age 5 that Sabraw ordered reunited with their families, the court filing shows. The government decided the other children were ineligible for reunions. In some cases, federal authorities determined a family member posed a potential safety risk. In others, the adult accompanying the child was deported before reunification could occur or was jailed for other offenses.

Fingers and Toes

The judge rebuked the administration’s slow progress on the reunions of children under five at a hearing this week after the deadline to do so had passed. HHS officials maintained it is necessary to fully vet the people and situations into which the government is placing every child.

“The task we’re undertaking with this reunification is not about moving one widget to be packaged with another widget. These are children, with 10 fingers and 10 toes,” Chris Meekins, chief of staff of HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said on a Thursday conference call with reporters before the status report was filed.

“While most adults we are encountering are parents who are perfectly appropriate sponsors for their children, sadly not all are,” Meekins added, noting that background checks identified adults convicted of child cruelty, charged with smuggling, and wanted for murder in Guatemala. Seven of the people who claimed to be parents of the children under five were not, Meekins said, including three people who admitted they were not the parents when faced with a DNA test.

Case managers are interviewing children about their backgrounds and the people claiming to be their parents, and older children should be able to provide more information than younger ones did. With older kids, “there is an increased likelihood that being able to have those conversations could provide some additional information that could be valuable in determining whether or not it’s appropriate to place the child back with the adult claiming to be a parent,” Meekins said.

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