As a court-ordered deadline to reunite all eligible families the Trump administration separated at the border elapsed, one in three children still remained away from their parents, with no clear indication when they would be reunited.
According to a court filing, the government has reunited 1,442 families with children aged 5 and older by late Thursday. The government says an additional 378 children have already been released under “appropriate circumstances,” according to the court filing. That includes children released to another family member or friend who can care for them, children who were released to parents already out of government custody and those who have turned 18.
But there are more than 700 children still left in government custody, unable to be reunited with their parents any time soon. The government maintains that it could not or should not have reunited all of those children, including hundreds of parents who were apparently deported and others who the government says declined to be reunified or have criminal histories.
In an update Friday morning, a DHS spokesperson issued a statement that the government had completed one of its tasks – reuniting all parents who had still been in government custody and were deemed eligible in time with their children.
The spokesperson provided no new numbers from Thursday, and it’s not clear how many additional reunifications have taken place. The statement also noted some parents “are not eligible or available for reunification” Friday, including the hundreds who are no longer in the country, some who were released in the US and haven’t yet been located, or those the government declared it had safety concerns about.
The government and the group that brought the lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union, have disagreed over some of the points of eligibility and what was required to meet the court’s deadline.
The deadline marks the closing of one chapter of the case, in which US District Court Judge Dana Sabraw ruled the government’s practice of separating families for weeks and months at a time was inhumane and unconstitutional.
But the hard work was in many ways just beginning, as the government has offered no timeline for tracking down the hundreds of parents who remain unaccounted for – a large number of whom are likely to have already been deported to their home countries with no easy way to get in touch with them.
The government declared the deadline met, saying the remaining 711 families were ineligible – either because they had red flags that prevent reunification or because they could not be located in time for the deadline.
That number included 120 children whose parents declined to be reunited, 21 children whose parents had red flags in their background checks, 46 children who had a parent with a red flag for another reason, 79 children whose parents were released from government custody into the US and could not be reunited, 431 children with parents who are no longer in the US, likely those who were deported. Another 94 children had parents whose locations were under review and 7 children were impacted by a separate court case. The number does not add up to 711 because of some overlap, though the filing didn’t specify where the overlaps occurred.
In a call with reporters, officials emphasized that they had met the obligations as they saw them, noting that there would be no parents and children in the country who could be reunited by the end of the day left.
“We expect to be able to reunify all eligible parents who were within ICE custody this evening by the court order,” said Chris Meekins, the chief of staff for the Department of Health and Human Service’s preparedness and response division.
Matthew Albence, the chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s enforcement division, emphasized that his agency has been working “24/7” to facilitate reunions.
“ICE and especially ERO has made a concerted effort and dedicated an inordinate amount of resources to ensure these reunifications did occur,” Albence said. “The overall first guiding principle is the safety of these children.”
The call also addressed the 431 children with parents out of the country, whom Albence seemed to acknowledge were deported.
“Parents that did return home without their child did so after being provided an opportunity to have that child accompany them on the way home,” Albence said, later adding the parents “declined” that offer. “Yes, they’ve been deported. We don’t keep track of individuals once they’ve been deported to foreign countries, as Chris indicated.”
“We cannot force a parent to take a child with them,” he said. The ACLU has filed a number of affidavits to the court alleging numerous parents did not know what they had signed when they relinquished their right to be reunified.
He added the government will “work with the court … should these individuals want reunification.”
Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said that by the end of the day, the government expected that every child in government custody and every parent still in government custody who is eligible and wanted to be reunited would be reunited.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, said earlier Thursday that they did not believe the deadline was met.
“I think it’s accurate to say they didn’t meet the deadline, the only deadline they met is their self-defined deadline,” ACLU lead attorney Lee Gelernt said in a call with reporters, blaming an “inhumane” policy in the first place for creating the problem. “The government shouldn’t be proud of the work they’re doing in separation. … This is a disaster that they created.”
Tuesday in court, Sabraw noted both great progress and troubling realities.
“For class members who are eligible, it appears that when we meet on this issue again on Friday that reunification will have been completed on time, which has to be highlighted and the government has to be commended for its efforts in that regard,” Sabraw said.
But going forward, he said the ACLU needs “more information.” He said the process needs to be even more “transparent.”
“Some of this information is unpleasant,” Sabraw said. “It’s the reality of the case, it’s the reality of a policy that was in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people. And that’s the fallout we’re seeing. There may be 463, there may be more, it’s not certain, but it appears there’s a large number of parents who are unaccounted for or who may have been removed without their child.”
He continued: “That’s a deeply troubling reality of the case and the plaintiffs are entitled to that information. So there has to be an accounting.”