Families Divided

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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The clock is ticking on a court-ordered Tuesday deadline for the federal government to reunite migrant parents with kids under 5 who were taken from them at the border. With a mere four days left, government attorneys have asked for more time — and some migrant parents say they have been given no information about how these court-ordered reunifications will take place.

At a status conference in San Diego Friday, government attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to grant them reprieve from what they characterized as an over-ambitious deadline to bring together about 100 toddlers with parents who may be scattered across the country or the world — either held in immigration detention centers, released into the interior United States or, in some cases, already deported to their home countries.

Sarah Fabian, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, told the judge that the government has been able to match up 83 of those toddlers to parents, but has not yet found parental ties for 19 of them. Of the parents the government has identified so far, 46 remain in immigration detention centers. Those reunifications should be completed before the Tuesday deadline, Fabian said.

But the process is likely to take longer for the dozens of parents who are not in government custody. Nineteen parents of the youngest group of children have already been deported, 19 have been released from immigration custody into the United States, and two have been found to be unfit based on past criminal history. Fabian cautioned that those numbers were approximate and could be “in flux” over the coming days.

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The judge — who had in a previous order criticized the government because “migrant children [were] not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property” — did not immediately lay out a longer time frame for reunifications in those more logistically challenging cases. Sabraw instead directed the government to provide more information over the weekend and set a Monday morning hearing to reconsider the deadlines.

“It may well be that once the plaintiffs know what the reason is and what groups [of parents] it applies to, they’ll agree that a more relaxed date can apply to a certain group,” Sabraw said at the conclusion of a lengthy conference. “But no one can make any informed decision, including the court, without additional information.”

While the judge did not revise the Tuesday deadline, it remains unlikely that all “tender age” children will be reunited with their parents by that original date. The odds are particularly steep in cases where those parents have already been deported, as the government argued Thursday. Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case on behalf of separated parents, said countless private lawyers and other organizations have offered up their services to help speed the reunification process.

The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.

In the meantime, parents — some with kids under 5 who should be sent back to them early next week — say they haven’t been given any information about how these court-ordered reunifications will take place. And three parents alleged this week in a separate lawsuit that the government has already failed to provide this information after plaintiffs’ requests to do so.

“The Government has yet to provide any information about reunification plans, conditions, or dates,” the lawyer for three Central American asylum seekers who have been separated from their children wrote in a court filing Thursday in a separate case in federal court in Washington, D.C. Those parents, who remain in immigration detention centers, sued the federal government last month for forcibly separating them from their children. Those children range in age from 2 to 13 — meaning the youngest, a 2-year-old boy, should be on his way to his mother by early next week. He and his two older siblings are currently in New York, according to court filings. Their mother is being detained in south Texas.

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Another plaintiff — a Honduran man who crossed the border last month — recently learned that his 12-year-old daughter is housed a 20-minute drive away from him near Los Fresnos, Texas, but federal officials have not allowed them to visit each other.

Once these families are reunified, it’s not clear where ICE can legally — or feasibly — detain them. There is limited space in the three existing family detention centers — under 3,000 beds — and those are reportedly nearing capacity. Meanwhile, the government faces a separate legal restriction on how long it can detain minors, even with their parents: 20 days — a span, by the government’s own admission, generally shorter than the full length of immigration proceedings.

As they look ahead to reunifications, parents hoping to be in touch with their children via telephone have been stymied by long wait times and high costs. In the case in D.C. court, parents have complained that federal officials have failed to provide adequate contact between the three parents and their kids.

“Not only are Plaintiffs being forcibly separated from their children without any legitimate reason, they are unable to communicate with their children on a sufficiently frequent basis,” reads the report submitted to the court Thursday.

Sabraw, the federal judge in California, had ordered that federal officials provide detained immigrant parents with a way to contact their kids by Friday. All three parents in the D.C. lawsuit have spoken with their children, but the Honduran man was only able to speak with his daughter for the first time in nearly a month on Tuesday.

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