Families DividedMore in this series
The court-imposed deadline is only a day away for the federal government to reunite the families of about 100 migrant children under the age of 5 who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. But a lawyer for the government said in court Monday that only two children of that "tender age" have been reunited so far.
And, the lawyer said, the government expects to reunite less than 60 of those children with their parents by the Tuesday deadline.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Sarah Fabian said the children on track to be reunited have been transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and, pending final confirmation of parentage, will be reunited with their parents by Tuesday. ICE will then release the families from detention, since the facilities where the parents are currently housed cannot shelter children.
The other children appear to be caught up in a series of logistical issues that the government raised last week. Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California set the Tuesday deadline on June 26, giving a later July 26 deadline to reunite the more than 2,000 older children who have also been separated. But government lawyers have characterized the Tuesday deadline as over-ambitious, since some of the toddlers' parents were deported or released from custody into the United States.
The government previously gave the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs in the case, a list of 102 children who needed to be reunified by Tuesday under Sabraw’s order. ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said his team identified around 10 more children who weren’t on the government’s list, and Fabian pledged at the hearing Monday to work with Gelernt to determine whether those children fall under the purview of the lawsuit.
Of the toddlers on the government's original list, Fabian said officials removed six after determining their parents have serious criminal violations or were not the adults who brought the kids into the country. Fifty-four of the 102 children will "definitely" be reunified tomorrow as long as all goes well in the final stage of the government's parental vetting process, Fabian said. An additional five are expected to be rejoin their parents tomorrow once officials follow up on questions raised during background checks on the parents.
Many of the children were separated from their parents under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for illegal border crossings. Under the policy, any migrant who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border outside a port of entry faced criminal charges. Because children can't be held in jail with their parents, thousands of kids were separated. Amid outcry, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 20 ending the separations.
The federal government refused to publicly release information about reunification sites, citing privacy concerns. But Fabian pledged to provide that information to Gelernt so he could arrange for charities and faith-based organizations to deliver resources to newly reunited families when ICE officials release them.
The parents of at least nine kids on the government's list have already been deported to their home countries — and it will be up to those parents whether the government deports their children or keeps them in the United States. The parents of another nine children are scattered throughout the country after government officials released them from detention, and Fabian said tracking them down has proven difficult. The government has only managed to reach four of those parents so far, she said.
Fabian asked the judge to approve a slimmed-down vetting process so the government can expedite the remaining reunifications. Sabraw requested that both parties work together Monday to develop a set of procedures for more rapidly screening parents. Acknowledging that some cases will need to stretch beyond the Tuesday deadline, Sabraw called another hearing for Tuesday to rule on any disagreements. The ACLU lawyer requested that the streamlined vetting procedures take no more than 48 hours after the government makes contact with the parents, and no more than one week for parents who have already been deported.
Despite the low number of reunifications thus far, Sabraw voiced optimism that reunifications would occur roughly according to the timetable he laid out last month.
"This is real progress, and I’m optimistic that many of these families will be reunited tomorrow, and then we will have a very clear understanding as to who has not been reunited, why not, and what timeframe will be in place," the judge said.