Originally published by Politico
A federal judge on Tuesday pressed the Trump administration to reunify dozens of separated migrant children under age 5 by the end of the day or shortly thereafter.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw called on the administration to join 59 separated children in that age group with their parents “today or within the immediate proximity of today.”
“These are firm deadlines,” Sabraw said during a court hearing in San Diego. “They are not aspirational goals.”
The Trump administration maintains custody of 102 children under 5 who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Of those, 59 children are eligible to reunite with their parents, the Justice Department said in a Tuesday court filing. Thirty-four parents cleared background and parentage checks, and another 25 parents had checks pending.
Four children have been reunited with parents already. Another 12 arrived at the border with parents who have been deported, but also could be eligible for reunification.
Sabraw acknowledged Tuesday that connecting children with deported parents will be complicated, but said “they are part of the class and they do deserve to be reunited.”
The reunification deadline represents only the beginning of what could be an arduous task of tracking down migrant parents and children who were forcibly separated when they were caught at the border. Under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border strategy, thousands of minors were split apart from adults, who then faced misdemeanor illegal entry charges.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated in late June that as many as 3,000 minors in his department‘s custody may have been separated from a parent at the border. Under an order from Sabraw, those children who are 5 or older must be joined with their parents by a July 26 deadline.
When Sebraw’s first deadline arrived Tuesday — to reunite kids under age 5 — the administration appeared poised to reconnect only a few dozen children.
The Justice Department said 34 parents cleared a criminal background check and had parentage verified through a DNA test.
DOJ attorney Sarah Fabian told Sabraw on Tuesday the government still awaited the results of DNA tests for 16 parents — a delay Sabraw said was unacceptable.
“This is not an invitation for them to take time doing the swab,” he said. “They can do it and they can do it quickly.”
The judge on Tuesday clarified that the administration should proceed with reunifications if parentage can be verified through documentation apart from a DNA test.
Sabraw also ordered the administration to forgo an Office of Refugee Resettlement policy of conducting background checks of all members of a migrant family’s prospective household in the interest of a prompt reunification.
Sabraw said in a Tuesday court order that the government did not need to comply with the “onerous policies“ for vetting sponsors of unaccompanied minors as laid out in the 2013 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, since the children in question arrived at the border with a parent, not alone.
“Everyone is rowing in the same direction here,” Sabraw said at the hearing. “It’s just a matter of, I think, streamlining the process and providing clearer direction as to how the government will proceed.”
The larger task will be joining all separated migrant children with their parents, a precise count of which the administration still has not provided.
Sabraw set a Thursday deadline for both parties to provide a status report on the broader reunification efforts, as well as progress on efforts with children under age 5. The parties then will meet in court Friday.
“That’s going to be a significant undertaking and we need to have concrete information,” he said.
Parents unified with children under age 5 generally will be released with an ankle bracelet to monitor their whereabouts, a top official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said during a call with reporters earlier Tuesday.
The move, a return to a “catch and release” at the border, could be the administration’s most viable alternative for reunited families at present, since family detention facilities are near capacity.
ICE’s Matthew Albence said the ankle bracelets “encourage compliance” and ensure migrants appear for immigration court hearings, but stressed they would be utilized on a case-by case-basis.
Chris Meekins of HHS’ emergency response team argued during the call with reporters that the department needs more time to conduct background checks, which officials say have turned up issues in some cases.
For instance, some children aren’t eligible for reunification because HHS determined that their parents have serious criminal histories, pose risks to the children, or remain in criminal custody.
Background checks for eight individuals “claiming to be parents” turned up serious issues, Meekins said. He said those reviews identified claims of kidnapping and child abuse. He also said the department’s use of DNA testing showed that three adults did not have a biological connection to kids whom they claimed as their children.
“Our process may not be as quick as some would like,” Meekins said. “But there is no question it is protecting children.”