U.S. Says Fraud Is an Obstacle to Meeting Family-Reunification Date

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s top immigration official laid groundwork on Thursday for the government to miss a court-ordered deadline next week to reunify children separated from their parents after crossing the southern border.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said a 315 percent increase from 2017 in groups of immigrants pretending to be related when they arrived in the U.S. has complicated efforts to identify how many of the more than 2,000 children now in detention actually belong to the adults they came with. At a hearing Friday, the federal judge overseeing the process may decide if that merits an extension.

“We will do our best but we will not cut corners,” she said at the Aspen Security Forum. The government’s goal, Nielsen said, is to protect children and that becomes more difficult when a “good portion of these adults showing up are not their families.”

The claim isn’t new. Nielsen has been pointing to fake relations since at least June 18, after intense pressure on the administration to explain its “zero tolerance” approach to migrants arriving at the southern U.S. boundary. In reality, the instances of fraudulent families trying to enter the U.S. account for a fraction of the children and parents separated at the border.

About 190 instances of fraud have been identified by the Department of Homeland Security in the past six months, compared with 46 in 2017. But the government is facing a class of as many as 3,000 kids separated from their parents in the administration’s border-crossing crackdown that began in April.

Michael Avenatti, a California lawyer who represents about 70 separated children, said only three are on track to be reunited soon. He said the government needs to pick up the pace and balked at Nielsen’s claim about fake families.

“Complete nonsense,” Avenatti said in an email, calling it “a fabrication designed to hide their own blatant incompetence.”

Meanwhile, 719 separated family members have been or will be deported, according to a federal court filing Thursday. The American Civil Liberties Union called on the judge overseeing the reunifications to ensure the parents are counseled about their options.

“These parents may only have a matter of days to make the momentous decision whether to leave their child behind,” the group said in a joint status report with the Justice Department on the process.

Annunciation House

The consequences should the government fail to meet the July 26 deadline set by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw for all children from 5 to 17 aren’t clear. According to Health and Human Services Commander Jonathan White, dubbed the “architect” of reunification efforts, the administration didn’t think about how to match parents and children until the judge issued a court order demanding it.

Close to 140 reunified families have passed through the doors of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, since the government began rejoining families last week. The pace has picked up, with 50 families arriving there Wednesday and 60 expected on Thursday. For parents, the priority remains “simply getting their child back,” said Ruben Garcia, Annunciation House’s director.

While some children are showing no ill-effects of the time away from their families, others are struggling without their parents and are wrestling with the mental trauma of separation, as their way forward remains unclear.

Garcia said parents have told him their children “think the parent chose to be separated” and ask, “Why did you leave me?”

Parents describe feeling helpless while in government custody, not knowing what was happening to them, let alone where their children were or what kind of care they would have, Garcia said.

‘Act of Defiance’

Judge Sabraw has emphasized the need to resolve the crisis urgently given the circumstances of the separations. He explicitly blamed the Trump administration for “improperly separating parent and child” in each case. The last time the government tried to express the complexities involved in identifying parentage and swift reunification, Sabraw rejected the administration’s excuses, describing the government’s behavior as an “act of defiance” against the court.

At Catholic Charities of San Antonio, one of four faith-based groups designated by the government as drop-off points for recently reunified families, the pace of family arrivals slowly accelerated to eight on Wednesday from two on Monday. Before the process began, Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the group to expect as many as 400 families with children between the ages of five and 17.

Each morning, ICE tells Catholic Charities how many families to expect that day and in the afternoon the families begin to arrive, making hour-long journeys in ICE-contracted vans.

As they enter the charity’s building, parents typically carry a single plastic bag of belongings while clutching their child’s hand. Once inside, they’re given food and help choosing new clothes from overflowing racks of donations. Kids are encouraged to take as many toys and books as they want from heaping bins and shelves.

Case workers, who are contracted by Catholic Charities, help the families call relatives in their home countries and their sponsors, usually relatives, elsewhere in the U.S.

The case workers also assist the parents in buying airplane or bus tickets to travel to those sponsors. Sometimes the same day and often by the next, the families are on their way to their next destinations. When families need to spend the night in San Antonio, Catholic Charities puts them up in a hotel room.

Similar processes are under way at two other faith-based groups, Catholic Charities of McAllen and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Phoenix. None of the organizations have shared data on reunified families being brought to them.

The case is Ms. L. et al v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al, 18-cv-428, U.S District Court, Southern District of California (San Diego).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.