ACLU Accuses Government of Stonewalling on Deported Immigrants

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is poised to declare mission accomplished on reuniting migrant families torn apart during a border crossing crackdown, while the American Civil Liberties Union says the government is playing hide the ball.

Even after a federal judge on Tuesday again commended the Trump administration’s effort to reunify a majority of the more than 2,500 immigrant children separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border, the ACLU complained that it can’t get straight answers about as many as 463 parents who may have already been deported without their children.

“The Trump administration’s lack of transparency is now bordering on stonewalling,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “No one should forget that the government’s claim that it will meet the reunification deadline is based on its exclusion of parents it has deported or can’t locate, as well as on its unilateral, unchecked decision of who is eligible to be reunited or not.”

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego said at a hearing Tuesday that the government appears to be on track to meet Thursday’s deadline to reunite a majority of the children caught up in the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. But Sabraw questioned why government lawyers still hadn’t provided a list of those parents separated from their children at the border and now classified as “no longer in the U.S.”

Sabraw last week ordered the government to provide the court and ACLU with a list and details about those 463 parents by July 20. He then extended the deadline until July 23. As of Tuesday afternoon, the judge was still waiting for the list.

“What would be the explanation of not knowing where the parents are?” Sabraw said.

Sarah Fabian, a lawyer for the U.S., said many parents may have been in custody from some criminal matter and then deported before they could be identified and reunited with their children. She said the U.S. was still trying to determine if those parents had been removed from the country or had agreed to be voluntarily deported, explaining her failure to produce the information was “due to a misunderstanding between myself and my client.”

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen provided her own explanation in a Tuesday interview on Fox News while the court hearing was still under way.

“The way the process works, the parents always have the choice to take the children with them, so these are parents that made the choice not to bring the children with them,” she said. Nielsen also said that if the deported parents contact the U.S. to reclaim their children, “we will work with them.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Gelernt said the ACLU plans to file sworn statements from immigrants and their advocates describing the reunification process as a “mess.” He told the judge immigrant rights groups have been unable to adequately advise detained parents about whether they should agree to leave the country with their children or go home and allow their kids to pursue political asylum to stay in the U.S..

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Scott Stewart took umbrage at Gelernt’s description.

“The government has worked very very hard to try to reach some way to resolve this issue,” he told Sabraw. “I’m disappointed to hear Mr. Gelernt is planning to file a raft of affidavits and declarations.”

The ACLU said migrant parents need at least a week after being reunited with their children to weigh their options.

Government lawyers said deportations shouldn’t be delayed, arguing in a court filing that the U.S. has authority to remove immigrants using “streamlined procedures.”

The Trump administration also said that once immigrant families are reunited, any parents targeted for deportation shouldn’t be allowed to leave their children behind to apply for political asylum.

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