Trump administration seeks to extend deadline for reuniting some migrant families split at border

Trump administration seeks to extend deadline for reuniting some migrant families split at border

06/07/18 - 18:40 - The Trump administration will not fully meet a federal judge’s deadline to reunite all migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, and instead is seeking more time in instances where officials are struggling to match children to parents, lawyers for the government argued in court Friday.

The judge declined to grant the administration’s request, saying he needed more information before he would consider extending the deadline.

Attorneys for the Trump administration said they’ve launched a nationwide effort to comply with the judge’s order but face considerable challenges in locating some of the parents. The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit pushing for reunification, urged the judge to stick to the deadlines he imposed late last month — the first arrives Tuesday — so that families who’ve been separated can be brought back together quickly.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose agency oversees the shelters caring for separated children, said Thursday that the judge’s timetable was “extreme” and that the administration would seek more time if necessary “to protect the children in our care,” though he also indicated the administration would strive to meet the deadlines even if they “prevent us from conducting our standard or even a truncated vetting process.” Officials have said the administration is focused on complying with federal laws designed to shield children from traffickers.

In documents submitted to the court, Justice Department officials said they would propose “an alternative timeline” for reuniting all families, but they did not specify what that would be. Those details were not disclosed in court either.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to address questions seeking clarity on the administration’s desired timeline to reunite families. In a statement, an administration official said its priority was “to ensure the safety of the children in its custody.”

The court documents reveal a patchwork of efforts spanning multiple agencies and an underlying uncertainty over how long it will take the government to release the children to their parents.

In a June 26 ruling, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw in San Diego ordered federal officials to bring the families back together within 30 days. He ordered them to reunite children under age 5 — there are 101, according to the most recent court records — with their parents by Tuesday.

Dozens of government workers have descended on child shelters and immigration jails to conduct interviews and collect forms. But challenges lay ahead.

Some parents have been deported. Others have been released in the United States. Some are in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, apparently for criminal proceedings, or awaiting civil deportation hearings in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities.

Robert Guadian, acting deputy assistant director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations, called the process “difficult and time consuming” because the federal agency detains parents for deportation but does not track if they have been separated from their children. He said the parents of children under age 5 are scattered in 23 immigration jails across 13 states, and that officials had to examine data from two other agencies to reunite the families.

 

Though all parents had spoken by phone to their children as of Friday, as the judge ordered, Guadian said federal officials still must complete criminal background checks on the parents.

Officials said in the court filing that they had identified 101 children under age 5 who were separated from their parents and that.they have located 40 of their parents in federal immigration custody while another nine are with the U.S. Marshals. Immigration officials said they’ve relocated 23 parents to facilities that are closer to the HHS shelters where their children are staying.

ICE is attempting to match many more parents to older children, who the judge said must be reunited within 30 days. Officials said the agency has completed approximately 300 background checks, which include criminal and immigration histories, but still has 1,400 to finish.

Azar said Thursday morning that an army of government workers had been dispatched to review files and conduct DNA testing to match parents with their children. Another top official leading the effort said in the court filing that, although officials were working nights and over the weekend, they may be unable to quickly match some families because the tests were inconclusive, or the parents were released from custody and have not yet been found.

“HHS has worked diligently to expedite these processes to enable the Government to comply with the timelines in the Court’s order,” the Justice Department said in its filing. “HHS anticipates, however, in some instances it will not be able to complete the additional processes within the timelines the Court prescribed, particularly with regard to class members who are already not in Government custody, (e.g., because they have previously been paroled or released).”

The government also does not know precisely how many minors age 5 through 18 have been separated from their parents, a process officials called “ongoing,” according to the court documents. Azar had said Thursday that “under 3,000” children had been separated from their parents.

Another issue for the Trump administration is that Sabraw’s ruling also applies to families split up before its “zero tolerance” policy was implemented in May. The policy, which vowed to bring criminal charges against all migrants crossing the border illegally, dramatically increased separations and the administration did not keep close track of the figures.

U.S. Border Patrol agents dispatched parents to criminal courts and then to federal immigration detention, while children were sent to HHS shelters.

In his ruling, Sabraw called the separations “chaotic.” Advocates said the practice has traumatized families. A Honduran man killed himself while in U.S. custody after his son was taken away.

Sabraw’s ruling emerged from a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of parents separated from their children.

The president said he took the drastic measure to secure the border. Apprehensions slumped in June, as they typically do in the hot summer months, though at more than 42,000, the monthly tally is nearly double what it was in June 2017.

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