Controversial separations began in earnest in May under President Donald Trump’s 'zero tolerance' policy
Hundreds of children in limbo as US races to reunite immigrant families
The United States is racing to meet a court-set deadline on Thursday for reuniting immigrant parents and children who were separated after crossing the Mexican border, but hundreds of families are likely to be disappointed.
The controversial separations began in earnest in May under US President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, when migrants illegally entering the US were detained en masse and their children taken to shelters elsewhere.
The policy triggered howls of protest in the United States and abroad, especially after the release of audio of small children in shelters crying for their parents, many of whom fled turmoil and gang violence in Central America.
An about-face from the Republican leader six weeks later led to hundreds of reunions, but the pace has been slow – children and their parents are being housed in different parts of the country, and some adults have been deported.
A federal judge in California, Dana Sabraw, demanded a quick resolution to the drama, issuing an order that all eligible families be reunited by Thursday.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Tuesday that the government intended to “reunify all families that are suitable”.
She told Fox News that her department was “working hand in glove” with the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates shelters across the country where the children – some toddlers or even infants – were sent.
The government has identified 2,551 children ages 5 to 17 who are potentially covered by the order, and said that 1,634 families are expected to be reunited by the deadline.
The remaining 917 fall into the category of “ineligible cases” – meaning children cannot be reunited because family ties cannot be confirmed, or the parent has a criminal record, a communicable disease or cannot be found.
And of that number, government data indicates that more than 460 parents may already have been deported, some of them voluntarily – enormously complicating any possible reunion with their children.
“The other 917 – including the 463 who may not be in the US now – will not be reunited before the deadline, and it’s up to Judge Sabraw to decide whether that is OK,” said Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental research group.
Asked how the government will return children to parents who have been deported, Nielsen said: “If the parents contact us that they would like to be reunited, of course we’ll work with them.”
But finding these parents in Mexico or Central America will be a long, painstaking task, said Stephen Kang, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed suit against the administration to demand separated families be brought back together.
“If this number turns out to be as large as the report suggests, this is going to be a big issue for us,” Kang told The Washington Post.
“We have a lot of questions.”
A month ago, Judge Sabraw ordered the government to return children under the age of 5 to their parents by July 10 and those between 5 and 17 by Thursday.
The government missed the first deadline. It deemed 45 children ineligible for return because their parents were not fit or able to take them.
Now, with the second deadline about to hit, activists are unsure how many children are still to be reunited and concerned about what the future may hold.
“The Trump administration’s lack of transparency is now bordering on stonewalling,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“And no one should forget that the government’s claim that it will meet the reunification deadline is based on its exclusion of parents it has deported or can’t locate, as well as on its unilateral, unchecked decision of who is eligible to be reunited or not.”
As of Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services had in its custody, in shelters around the country, 11,500 children classified as "unaccompanied alien children", or UAC.
That figure includes children and adolescents who travelled to the US without an adult.
But it also takes into account children who crossed over with their families, were separated from them and then reclassified as UAC when they were sent to shelters.
As of July 16, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had in its custody 44,210 adult immigrants.