Originally published by USA Today
A federal judge in California has ordered U.S. immigration authorities to reunite separated families on the border within 30 days, describing the Trump administration's handling of the crisis as attempts "to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making."
The preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego said children younger than 5 must be reunified within 14 days of the order issued Tuesday.
Sabraw, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, also issued a nationwide injunction on future family separations unless the parent is deemed unfit or doesn’t want to be with the child. It also requires the government to provide phone contact between parents and their children within 10 days.
Despite the ruling, organizers of a protest rally at the U.S.-Mexico border planned to go ahead with their event on Thursday.
The rally was scheduled to begin at the federal courthouse in Brownsville, Texas, to protest what organizers called "Trump’s inhumane treatment of immigrants.”
The organizers included the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Rio Grande Equal Voice Network, We Belong Together and Jay Ellis, an activist and actor from HBO’s “Insecure.”
“The rally is still on, and we are mobilizing people, as this is far from over,” said Ana Blinder, an ACLU representative. “The crisis engulfing immigrant children and families is now. “
The federal ruling in San Diego is in response to a lawsuit filed by an anonymous woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was separated from her 17-year-old girl and by a Brazilian mother separated from her 14-year-old. It was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which pursued it as a class action after U.S. authorities began a "zero tolerance" policy in early May toward people crossing the border.
Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney who represented the families in this California case, praised the judge's ruling.
“This is a complete victory for these parents and children who feared they might never see each other again," Gelernt said. "Tears of joy will be flowing in the detention centers when they hear the news. We hope the administration will now turn its efforts to reuniting these kids.”
The Department of Justice said the court's decision "makes it even more imperative that Congress finally act to give federal law enforcement the ability to simultaneously enforce the law and keep families together. "
"Without this action by Congress, lawlessness at the border will continue, which will only lead to predictable results – more heroin and fentanyl pushed by Mexican cartels plaguing our communities, a surge in MS-13 gang members and an increase in the number of human trafficking prosecutions,” the department said in a statement.
Under the terms of the zero tolerance policy, children were separated from their parents when the adults were arrested for alleged illegal entry into the U.S.
More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in recent weeks and placed in government-contracted shelters – hundreds of miles away, in some cases – under a now-abandoned policy for families caught illegally entering the U.S.
President Donald Trump hastily issued an executive order to stop the separation of families while officials began the reunification process after a national outcry.
Sabraw called the unfolding of events since the zero tolerance policy was put into effect "reactive governance – responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making."
"They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of
due process enshrined in our Constitution," Sabraw wrote.
In his 24-page order, the judge also slammed the administration's lack of preparedness in implementing its policy.
“The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings,” Sabraw wrote. “Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainee’s release, at all levels – state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process.”
Also Tuesday, 17 states, including New York and California, sued the Trump administration to force it to reunite children and parents. The states, all led by Democratic attorneys general, joined Washington, D.C., in filing the lawsuit in federal court in Seattle, arguing that they are being forced to shoulder increased child welfare, education and social services costs.
“The administration’s practice of separating families is cruel, plain and simple,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement. “Every day, it seems like the administration is issuing new, contradictory policies and relying on new, contradictory justifications. But we can’t forget: The lives of real people hang in the balance.”
In a speech before the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration for taking a hard-line stand on illegal immigration and said the voters elected Trump to do just that.
“This is the Trump era,” he said. “We are enforcing our laws again. We know whose side we are on – so does this group – and we’re on the side of police, and we’re on the side of the public safety of the American people.”
Juan Sanchez, chief executive of the nation’s largest shelters for migrant children, said he fears a lack of urgency by the U.S. government could mean it will take months to reunite families.
Sanchez, with the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the government has no process in place to speed the return of children to their parents.
“It could take days,” he said. “Or it could take a month, two months, six or even nine. I just don’t know.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress on Tuesday that his department still has custody of 2,047 immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. That is only six fewer children than the number in HHS custody as of last Wednesday.
Democratic senators said that wasn’t nearly enough progress.
“HHS, Homeland Security and the Justice Department seem to be doing a lot more to add to the bedlam and deflect blame than they’re doing to tell parents where their kids are,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said.
Azar refused to be pinned down on how long it will take to reunite families. He said his department does extensive vetting of parents to make sure they are not traffickers masquerading as parents.
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants traveling with children – as well as children traveling alone – are caught on the Mexican border each year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
At a Texas detention facility, immigrant advocates complained that parents have gotten busy signals or no answers from a 1-800 number provided by federal authorities to get information about their children.
Attorneys have spoken to about 200 immigrants at the Port Isabel detention facility near Los Fresnos, Texas, since last week, and only a few knew where their children were being held, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.
“The U.S. government never had any plan to reunite these families that were separated,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said, and now it is “scrambling to undo this terrible thing that they have done.”
A message left for HHS, which runs the hotline, was not immediately returned.
Many children in shelters in southern Texas have not had contact with their parents, though some have reported being allowed to speak with them in recent days, said Meghan Johnson Perez, director of the Children’s Project for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides free legal services to minors.
“Things might be changing now. The agencies are trying to coordinate better,” she said. “But the kids we have been seeing have not been in contact with the parents. They don’t know where the parent is. They’re just distraught. Their urgent need is just trying to figure out, ‘Where is my parent?’”
Administration officials have been casting about for detention space for migrants since calling for an end to separations. The Pentagon has drawn up plans to hold as many as 20,000 at U.S. military bases.
The administration has also asked the courts to let it detain families together for an extended period while their immigration cases are resolved. Under a 1997 court settlement, children must be released from detention as quickly as possible, which generally has been construed to be within 20 days.
Immigrant supporters have led protests in recent days in states such as Florida and Texas. In Los Angeles, police arrested 25 demonstrators at a rally Tuesday ahead of Sessions’ address.
Outside the U.S. attorney’s office, protesters carried signs reading, “Free the children!” and “Stop caging families.” Clergy members blocked the street by forming a human chain. Police handcuffed them and led them away.
Later, protesters gathered outside the hotel where Sessions gave his speech. As the attorney general’s motorcade arrived, the crowd chanted, “Nazi, go home.”
Contributing: Julie Garcia in Matamoros, Mexico; Alan Gomez, in Miami;The Associated Press
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