Trump Administration: 'There’s Going to Be Some Issues' Meeting Deadline to Reunite Immigrant Families

Guatemalan asylum seekers Manuela Adriana, 11, and her father Manuel Marcelino Tzah are among the few immigrant families who have been reunited. Guatemalan asylum seekers Manuela Adriana, 11, and her father Manuel Marcelino Tzah are among the few immigrant families who have been reunited. Bebeto Matthews / AP

With one week until a court-ordered deadline for the Trump administration to reunite immigrant families it had separated upon entering the country, 82 percent of children between the ages of five and 17 remain apart from their parents.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has identified 2,551 minors in that category, 450 of whom have been reunited. A total of 1,606 children are eligible to be reconnected with their parents, while ICE has deemed more than one-third either ineligible for reunification or lacking sufficient information for the agency to make a determination. In more than 100 cases, parents waived their rights to reunification, and in 91 instances the parents held criminal records and were therefore ineligible to receive their children. Most of the children not currently eligible require “further evaluation,” ICE said.

ICE provided the update on Thursday and Friday to a federal court in California, where a judge had halted the family separations and issued the timeframe for reunifications. The deadline for reuniting children younger than five passed earlier this month, though the administration struggled to meet it. The deadline for the rest of the children is July 26.

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Dana Sabraw, a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of California, said at a hearing on Friday he was encouraged with the government’s progress, noting the number of reunifications had increased from 364 on Thursday to 450 on Friday morning. An attorney representing the government, however, cautioned against becoming overly optimistic.

“There’s a lot of work left to do,” the attorney said. “I think there’s going to be some issues in the next week.”

The reunification process involves several federal agencies; Customs and Border Protection typically makes the arrests of immigrants illegally crossing the border. ICE detains the parents and the Health and Human Services Department finds sponsors to house children or places them in government facilities. HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified to Congress last month that he can find any separated child “within seconds” in a database the agency maintains in conjunction with the Homeland Security Department. The department has struggled in some cases to link children to the parents, however, and has said the court order is preventing it from conducting adequate vetting of parents.

ICE has already conducted interviews with a parent of 848 separated children, and expects to reunite those families in the coming days. The agency has released an additional 222 parents from ICE custody, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit against ICE, said the government has not provided information on those individuals, making it difficult to offer them and their children legal services. There has also been no information on the parents who have already been deported or the 719 facing a final removal order.

ICE vowed to provide that information in the coming days. ACLU attorneys said the agency still has no plans for the parents no longer in its custody and the group therefore does not know “where and when any of these families will be reunited.”

CBP, ICE, HHS and Justice Department officials on Thursday met with congressional officials to detail their “zero tolerance” border policy and plans for reunifying families. The top House Democrats from three committees, however, said those closed briefings did little to assuage their concerns. The officials confirmed they had not created any interagency plan for reunification when the family separations begun taking place, according to the Democrats.

“There was not at that time a specialized plan,” Jonathan White, HHS deputy director for children's programs in the Office of Refugee Resettlement, told lawmakers, referring to when the zero tolerance policy went into effect.

“Even if they believed their new policy was the right one, how could they have been so heartless not to have planned to reunite these children with their parents?” Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a joint statement after the briefings. “Their admissions demonstrate a new low in the Trump administration’s cruelty, inhumanity, and utter incompetence.”

Cummings and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., earlier this month issued a bipartisan letter to the heads of HHS, DHS and Justice demanding the briefings and details on the separated families, the detention centers, the status of their broader immigration cases and other information. Despite the meetings with officials, the Democrats said the agencies have failed to provide much of the information Cummings and Meadows requested and the lawmakers were told it would not be coming.

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