Originally published by The New York Times
The Trump administration said on Thursday that it had reunified all the migrant children under the age of 5 it determined were eligible to be returned to their parents, part of a court order to reunite the children who were separated from their families at the border.
Officials said that 57 of the 103 children had been reunited with their families as of Thursday morning. An additional 46 children remain in government custody because they have been found ineligible to be returned to their families for various reasons.
The government said that 22 of the children could not be placed back with their parents due to safety concerns — because the parents had criminal records or because the federal government determined that the child was not related to the person they were with at the border.
Two dozen children could not be returned because the parent had been deported or was in jail or prison for other offenses.
The reunifications came after a federal judge pressed for faster action on Tuesday, when the government said it would miss a court’s deadline of returning at least half of children under 5 years old to a parent by that day.
Judge Dana M. Sabraw of the Federal District Court of San Diego said that deadline and a second set for July 26 to reunite nearly 3,000 more children were “firm deadlines, not aspirational goals.”
He asked the A.C.L.U. to track the administration’s progress, and suggested that the government could face sanctions if it failed to comply with the deadlines. The pace of reunions picked up Wednesday, and administration officials said late in the day that all the eligible children would be handed over to a parent by Thursday.
“As ordered by the court, the government will have to abandon their lengthy reunification process and switch to a process more appropriate for the situation,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the A.C.L.U.
To speed up the reunions, the A.C.L.U. and immigration advocates said the government would no longer insist on fingerprinting all adults in a household where a child would live, or require home visits by a social worker.
Instead, the authorities will release children to a parent once a familial tie has been established, provided the parent or guardian does not have a criminal record.
About 3,000 children were separated from their parents under a “zero-tolerance” border enforcement program that resulted in the criminal prosecutions of their parents for illegal entry. The children were removed from their parents, with whom they had crossed the border, and placed in dozens of government-licensed shelters and foster care homes across the country while their parents remained in detention.
Most of the families say they are fleeing gang or domestic violence in Central America and plan to seek asylum in the United States.
Last month President Trump ended the policy of separating families amid outcry from the public and political leaders on both sides of the aisle. But his executive order on June 20 did not outline steps for reunification, leaving intact a series of requirements that had to be met before a child could be released to a sponsor or parent.
Indeed, shortly before the government officially announced its zero-tolerance policy in May, it issued a memorandum setting stringent new rules for vetting parents, relatives and others who wished to recover a child from government custody.
Among other things, the memo said that the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the minors, must collect the name, date of birth, address, fingerprint and identification of a potential sponsor, who might be the parent, and of “all adult members in the potential sponsor’s household.” Administration officials said the measures were intended to protect the children from trafficking.
The A.C.L.U. argued in court that the lengthy procedures were unnecessary, given that the parents had already been fingerprinted at the border and that the children had been forcibly removed from them.
Stories of frustration played out across the country as parents faced lengthy bureaucratic hurdles as they tried to recover their children.
Often the adults were released from detention, only to realize that it would be weeks before their children could rejoin them, leaving the minors parked in government facilities. At least two Brazilian mothers sued the government in federal court and won orders for the release of their children from shelters and into their custody. More recently, other mothers have also filed suit to recover their children.
Still, government lawyers said Monday that they needed more time to “safely reunite families.” The Health and Human Services Department must follow procedures that are “time-consuming,” the government told the court.
The chaotic and slow reunions prompted the judge to push Tuesday for faster releases, ultimately forcing the government to change course.
Advocates said they began seeing signs that the administration would waive the requirements on Wednesday: Many young children were released to their parents despite the fact that the adults had not fulfilled previously stipulated steps, like fingerprinting. The government performed DNA tests on some, but not all, of them, some advocates said.
Since learning that the requirements would be streamlined, “we have been strategizing all night, putting our ducks in a row to get parents who are already out of detention to their kids,” said Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at Annunciation House, a nonprofit in El Paso that offers temporary accommodation for migrants.
Ms. Levy said she expected two migrant parents, who were staying just blocks from the shelter where their children were being housed, to be reunited with them as early as Thursday. They had been waiting for several weeks for background checks, including fingerprint processing, to be completed.
“Finally the government is going to do what it needs to do to comply with the deadline,” Ms. Levy said.