The government missed its deadline Tuesday to reunify all 98 immigrant children under 5 years old with their parents from whom they were separated at the border, but a federal judge is giving the administration more time because the process of finding and vetting the parents is proving difficult.
The Justice Department said in court filings Tuesday that the government is in the process of rejoining 51 small children with their parents — about half of the total. The parents of these 51 kids are in immigration detention and have been judged safe and fit to receive their children.
Among the reasons the government gave as to why the others cannot be reunified: Twelve parents have already been deported, eight parents were released into the United States, eight parents have criminal histories, five adults were determined not to be the parent of the child, and 10 parents are in state or federal criminal custody.
Despite the delay, Judge Dana Sabraw said in his San Diego courtroom, "Everyone is rowing in the same direction."
But he reiterated: "The families were improperly separated" during President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy when the government removed children from parents who crossed the border illegally to seek asylum. Federal officials acknowledged the harsh action was taken as a deterrent to future crossers. The president signed an executive order on June 20 that halted child separation after an international outcry and members of his own party objected.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services — which is charged with caring for unaccompanied immigrant children — said it is following Sabraw's court order to reunify families "in a responsible manner." That includes DNA tests to verify parentage, criminal background checks and gathering information on other adults who are living in the home the child is going to. Once these measures are taken, the families are being reunited at neutral locations near the HHS youth shelters.
Sabraw told the government it is taking too long and needs to "streamline" the time-consuming process of reunification. He said reconnecting a mother and child is different from investigating a nonparent who wants to sponsor a child. "I would like the process to progress as expeditiously as possible," Sabraw said. "That can be done."
A Justice Department lawyer confirmed that reunited families will not be detained; they'll be released together with the adult wearing an electronic ankle monitor to ensure they show up for asylum hearings. At that point, Lutheran and Catholic social aid groups will help transport the reunited families to their destination cities and assist them with food and lodging.
An even larger challenge is looming. Sabraw also ordered the government to reunify more than 2,000 older children who are 5 to 17 years old with parents with whom they were traveling by July 26. "That'll be a significant undertaking," Sabraw told attorneys. He told them to be back in his courtroom on Friday for another status conference to see how the government was doing reassembling the immigrant families it had broken up.