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.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yesterday, the Trump administration missed a court-ordered deadline to reunify about a hundred small children who were separated from their immigrant parents at the border over the past two months. Federal officials scrambled to rejoin about half of the families and promise to reunite the others as soon as possible. But there is an even bigger deadline looming. NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us from Austin. Good morning, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.
KING: All right. So why has the federal government not been able to meet the deadline that was set by a judge?
BURNETT: So at a hearing in San Diego yesterday, a Justice Department lawyer said that 51 kids were eligible for reunification on Tuesday, but others would have to happen later. Then they gave this cascade of numbers of those they couldn't rejoin for various reasons. They said that 12 parents have already been deported, that eight parents have been released into the U.S., eight parents had serious criminal histories, 10 are still locked in criminal custody. Health and Human Services - HHS - says they need more time to make sure the parents are the actual parents, make sure they're safe and fit to take custody of the kids. To hear the government tell it, they made the deadline with flying colors. Here's Chris Meekins in a call to reporters. He's chief of staff in HHS' Office of Preparedness and Response.
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CHRIS MEEKINS: HHS is complying with the court order to reunify children separated at the border from their parents. In fact, the judge has praised our progress and our focus on the safety of the children.
BURNETT: That's a bit self-congratulatory. In the hearing yesterday, Judge Dana Sabraw told the government it shouldn't have separated the kids in the first place. It needs to streamline the screening process to reunite them, and it needs to speed up the whole process. And if it misses any more deadlines, he wants the Justice Department lawyer back in his courtroom.
KING: Well, what are the actual repercussions for missing the deadline?
BURNETT: Well, we don't actually know yet. The federal judge is being very understanding so far. He said he believes the government is acting in good faith to reunite all these kids. And then, remember; these were the little ones so far, ages 5 and below, who were taken away from their parents just after they crossed the southwest border, some of them crying hysterically.
KING: Right. There are still a lot of older kids over the age of 5. Now that the government has some semblance of a reunification process established, do you think it's going to be easier to get those older kids back to their parents?
BURNETT: Right. It's taken many hearings and enormous resources just to try and put a hundred kids back with their parents, and HHS has brought on 230 extra people and created an incident command center. So now, they're looking at this second deadline. The judge has given the government until July 26, which is just over two weeks from now, to put about 2,000 more children together with their moms and dads. These are the older kids from ages 5 to 17. And it's going to be a Herculean task. I mean, the parents are spread all over the U.S. and Central America. Some are in - some are out of detention. I'm sure there'll be more hearings, and the government's going to ask for more extensions.
The ACLU, for its part, thinks the government is dragging its feet. They're the ones who brought the lawsuit to reunify the families. ACLU lawyers think this reunification process could move faster if the administration wanted it to. Reporters asked President Trump about the whole reunifying imbroglio yesterday, and here's what he said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have a solution. Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That's the solution.
KING: Not a heck of a lot of sympathy there. All right. What happens to the families once they have been reunited?
BURNETT: You know, Noel, it's murky. Every time we ask the question, they circle the wagons and say they want to protect the privacy of the families. What we know is the parents and kids are being reunited at third locations close to youth shelters. Then, certain faith-based groups like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and Catholic Charities step in. They help arrange transportation to the destination city here in the U.S. and help them rent a house or a hotel room, get food, blankets, medical aid. And this is interesting. An official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the reunited families will not be detained again. So long as the parent doesn't have a deportation order, the parent will be given an ankle monitor, and they'll be released and wait for their asylum hearings.
KING: NPR's John Burnett in Austin; John, thank you so much.
BURNETT: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.