A Trickle of Immigrant Family Reunions as Judge’s Deadline Nears

(Bloomberg) -- Immigrant families who were separated after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border are slowly being reunited as the Trump administration tries to satisfy a judge’s order to restore more than 2,500 children to their parents by next week.

Two mothers, each with a daughter, arrived Monday night at the Catholic Charities of San Antonio center. Three more reunited families arrived on Tuesday afternoon. As they were offered hot meals of meat, rice and beans, and outfitted with new clothing and shoes, mothers and daughters stayed close, hugging and touching.

They were "clinging to each other and it looked like they would never, ever be separated again," said Antonio Fernandez, the organization’s chief executive officer. As one of the families, a mother and her 14-year-daughter, left the Catholic Charities center Tuesday afternoon, they walked out with their arms linked.

The administration has struggled to comply with U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw’s order to reunite roughly 2,550 children over the age of 5 with their parents by July 26. Sabraw, who sits in San Diego, has expressed frustration with the pace of the process and last week said the government might be "acting in defiance" of his order.

On Monday, responding to a filing by the American Civil Liberties Union, he ordered the government not to deport families for at least the next week.

The parents in San Antonio declined to speak to reporters, though Fernandez agreed to convey some aspects of their stories.

‘Truly Happy Now’

A father and son from Guatemala were brought back together on Tuesday and then driven to Catholic Charities on a government-chartered bus. The father had been in Port Isabel Detention Center in the Rio Grande Valley and was moved to South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall to await his son, who is 5 or 6 and had been staying at a Department of Health and Human Services contractor’s facility in San Antonio.

The father "said that he is truly happy now and is in a good place now mentally, today with his son," Fernandez said, noting that both appeared to be in good physical and mental health. They’ll likely travel Wednesday to the man’s sister-in-law’s home in Indianapolis while going through the immigration process.

"He left Guatemala because he was afraid -- he was being threatened with people killing him so he just had to leave for his well-being," Fernandez said. The man is considering applying for asylum but did not yet have a lawyer. The boy’s mother remains in Guatemala.

One of the mother-daughter pairs who arrived Monday came from Guatemala, while other came from El Salvador. One of the girls, who Fernandez said was 6 or 7, had bronchitis and scabies and was seen by a doctor.

After the girl’s skin condition was reported, Immigration and Customs Enforcement called to complain that the center’s staff was disclosing that information to the press, according to a person familiar with the matter, who added that the staff made no direct connection between the girl’s time in government custody and her health problems.

400 Families

Fernandez said ICE told him last week to prepare for as many as 400 families before the judge’s deadline, but so far, he added, he has been given little information about specific arrivals and only a trickle of families have actually appeared.

"We expect a large amount of families but it’s nothing that I can control and I don’t know," Fernandez said. "So I’m just going to have to wait until the government does give us the kids or not." He said that the center will be prepared.

So far, administration officials have offered only rough outlines of the process and declined to provide information about where the reunifications were occurring.

"The key of the whole thing is human dignity," Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio said outside the center on Monday.

Catholic Charities of San Antonio is one of just four faith-based groups nationwide that are expected to assist in the reunion of hundreds of families before the deadline, Fernandez said.

The other groups are Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Annunciation House in El Paso, and Lutheran organizations in Phoenix.

The Department of Homeland Security would not confirm that it was working exclusively with those groups but said the government has long-standing relationships with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops working in partnership with Catholic Charities USA and with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Bill in Senate

Three Democratic senators, Kamala Harris of California, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, introduced a bill Tuesday requiring the unification of all families the government separated under its so-called zero-tolerance policy, as well as greater transparency from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.

The legislation would include the presumption that parents will not be deported until a child’s immigration proceeding has been completed or the child turns 18. It would also create an interagency Office for Locating and Reuniting Children with Parents and redirect $50 million in appropriations for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations to the enforcement of the bill.

There have been bipartisan talks on a family reunification bill, which could include bolstering the number of immigration law judges and drafting language that would allow children and parents to remain together while their cases are adjudicated.

Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, along with Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois, are leading the talks, though Durbin said Tuesday that the group had not met since before the July 4 congressional break and he did not expect any immediate agreement.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, hosted Homeland Security and Health and Human Services officials on Tuesday for a briefing of the committee’s members.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement that the briefing was "deeply disturbing — indeed ‎heart wrenching" and led him to conclude that the government’s plan for reunification "appears woefully inadequate to assure compliance with the court’s order" by next week.

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