Judge Says Agency May Be Defying Family Reunification Order

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge said the Department of Health and Human Services may be “acting in defiance” of a court order on immigration, and questioned the federal government’s commitment to reuniting some 2,500 children with their parents separated at the southern border.

Federal Judge Dana Sabraw, in a ruling late on Friday, wrote that HHS “either doesn’t understand the court’s order, or is acting in defiance of the order.”

Sabraw also issued a detailed timeline for parties to meet his deadline of complete reunification. “HHS appears to be operating in a vacuum, entirely divorced from the undisputed circumstances of this case,” he wrote.

A declaration provided by HHS “casts doubt on what the court believed was a mutual understanding, and calls into question the court’s previous statements that defendants are acting in good faith in their attempts to reunify.”

In a statement late Saturday, HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said the agency “has been working tirelessly with all relevant partners, including the court, to achieve two objectives related to the separated minors in our care: maximizing child welfare and meeting all court orders.”

‘Straightforward’ Process

Sabraw asked for a “straightforward” process to reunite the migrant families in Friday’s hearing in a San Diego federal court. He ordered the government to produce lists of all separated individuals, continue the use of DNA tests to confirm parentage when necessary, and to cover the cost of all reunifications.

HHS responded by questioning whether the court had children’s welfare in mind when ordering “truncated” procedures for identification.

“While most children should be safely reunited with their actual parents by the court’s deadline, the class is large and the agencies must proceed rapidly and without the procedures that HHS would ordinarily use to place a child with a parent safely,” according to the filing. “HHS believes that this creates a material risk that dozens of children may be reunited with individuals who falsely claimed to be their parents, or placed into situations that may pose a danger to the child.”

It was this response, along with a reference to ending the use of DNA testing, that appeared to draw Sabraw’s ire. The judge had previously commended the government for its swift action to identify families and reunite them.

Transparency, Cooperation

“In the interests of transparency and cooperation, the department felt it necessary in our filings on Friday to share with the court our view that meeting the deadline would mean truncating the process we might have otherwise followed,” Stauffer said in Saturday’s statement. “Within the time the court allows, we will strive to implement the most comprehensive procedures possible to ensure child welfare.”

Sabraw also questioned whether HHS is committed to swift reunification, or whether its reply was actually an attempt “to provide cover to [the government] for their own conduct in the practice of family separation, and the lack of foresight and infrastructure necessary to remedy the harms caused by the practice.”
It’s unclear whether the conflict between the court and the government will hamper or even halt the reunification process over the weekend before the parties meet again at 9 a.m. on Monday.

“HHS is wading into dangerous territory if they do not fully comply with the judge’s instructions,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic. “The judge may be losing patience with what he perceives as obstructionist practices or noncompliance. The federal judge’s order shows that he is keeping close tabs on the proceedings and he will not tolerate obstructionism or noncompliance by the deadline imposed.”

Four Steps

This is the timeline set by Judge Sabraw on Friday:

  • July 13 - U.S. had to provide a list of all class members currently in immigration custody and a list of all children in custody.
  • July 16, 9 a.m. - A list of all parents and children requiring reunification, along with location, age and alien registration numbers.
  • July 19 - Complete all “parentage determination” including all necessary DNA tests.
  • July 26 - Reunification of families must be completed.

Looking toward the deadline, the government has laid out a plan in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement will identify six to eight locations where as many as 200 children a day will be reunited with their parents. The focus now is on children ages 5 to 17, after the government reported this week that it had complied with an earlier order to first concentrate on kids under 5.

More than 230 HHS workers have been deployed to ICE detention facilities to interview parents and help them get necessary documents to verify family ties, department officials said. As of July 10, they’d interviewed more than 1,000 adults in ICE facilities.

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