Hundreds of Migrant Kids in U.S. Limbo Have No Clear Path Forward

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration declared it met a judge’s deadline to reunify immigrant children taken from their parents, but left out a quarter of the separated families it initially agreed to reconnect.

In all, 711 children are in limbo as federal authorities have categorized their parents “not eligible” or “not available” to be reunited. More than half those children are associated with adults who have left the U.S., either having been deported or having agreed to leave the country. In other cases, parents may have a serious criminal record or signed documents giving up the right to get their children back.

While the government said it’s fulfilled all legal obligations reuniting about 1,400 of the 2,500 children separated and releasing almost 400 more, it may yet have lots of work ahead as it faces the aftermath of its now-defunct “zero tolerance” policy at the border. The process so far has been almost entirely dictated by a federal judge in San Diego.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it has no way of verifying the government’s claims that it rematched all eligible families or why some couldn’t be reunited. The group asked U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw to demand transparency and accountability as hundreds of children remained in custody hours before the court deadline Thursday.

False Pretenses?

The ACLU also said it is trying to locate 468 parents who it said were deported under the false pretense that they’d be reunited with their children along the way. It asked Sabraw to once again order the government to reunite those families.

Chris Meekins, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency “worked really collaboratively with the judge” to meet his deadlines.

Sabraw, who ordered the reunions and has commended the process of reunification and the government’s efforts, has shown flashes of frustration with the U.S. precisely for that reason: it seemed to fulfill its obligations for information only as court-ordered deadlines approached.

‘Cruel’ Policy

The Departments of Homeland Security and HHS first raced to return about 100 children under the age of five to their parents by July 10. Only about 60 percent had been reunified as of the government’s most recent disclosure.

Then the U.S. turned to the group of older children. That number, initially set at 2,551, declined as the government exempted some kids by classifying them as ineligible.

“The government has adopted this tone in court that ‘We’re very proud of the work we’ve done on reunification’ and ‘We’re acting in good faith,”’ said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer representing the ACLU. “But because of their past practices in this case they should be pronouncing ‘We created this cruel inhuman policy and now we’re doing everything we can do.’ This is a disaster they created.”

Sabraw began in recent hearings to voice concerns about the fate of those not yet reunified, especially the children whose parents were deported. Gelernt indicated that once the July 26 deadline passed, he would push for more information about the parents who haven’t been reconnected with their children.

No Process

In the meantime, there’s uncertainty and no official process to rematch “not eligible” children and parents.

“We again find ourselves saying, ‘There is no plan,”’ said Anne Chandler, executive director of the Tahrih Justice Center in Houston. “They need a legal remedy -- What is the response and what is an appropriate solution? We have no clarity.”

Gelernt said the ACLU has already asked the government to provide more information about parents and will continue to do so. For parents determined to have criminal backgrounds, the ACLU is asking for details so it can independently verify the government’s claims.

Children with sponsors in the U.S. -- a sibling over 18, grandparents, aunts or uncles --could be fast-tracked through asylum or special status hearings. It’s unclear how many of those there are. Those who don’t will likely have to start from scratch to apply for special immigrant juvenile status or asylum.

It’s unclear if Sabraw will require the U.S. to reunify children with parents who have been deported. Gelernt said the ACLU intends to work with non-governmental organizations in Latin America to locate them. He also said he believed Sabraw has the authority to bring back parents who were removed, but that he thought it would be handled on a case by case basis and the judge couldn’t issue a blanket order for everyone.

Deported Parents

One such NGO, Kids In Need of Defense, started an initiative to reconnect parents and children, as well as to help families who have been reunified and deported. It will both try to assist parents who are seeking help and to actively find the parents of children who remain in U.S. custody.

“It’s going to take a lot,” said Lisa Frydman, KIND’s vice president of regional policy and initiatives.

Other NGOs are working on similar efforts. The Women’s Refugee Commission and the Vera Institute of Justice are operating databases of information about parents and children, while others are deployed on the ground in Central America.

It’s also possible the Trump administration could take on a more active role in reunifying deported parents with their children, working in concert with Central American governments and groups like the International Red Cross and International Rescue Committee.

“The U.S. government could step forward to take responsibility and work with groups with tracing experience,” Frydman said. “What’s happened in the void is that NGOs have stepped forward.”

The legal options for children who aren’t reunified with their parents aren’t entirely dismal and they may have more hope for asylum alone than they did with their parents, said Geoffrey Hoffman, a professor at University of Houston Law Center.

“The kids have their own case process to pursue and they may very well have a good case for special immigrant juvenile status,” he said. “The question is that if they won’t be reunified, how will they articulate what they want as the basis for their claims?”

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