Trump Administration to Speed Reunions of Families Separated at Border
Posted July 12, 2018 6:10 a.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — Facing pressure to expedite the reunion of migrant families separated at the border, the Trump administration is expected to announce Thursday that it will streamline the process, immigration advocates say.
The government will stop requiring a litany of steps before a child can be released from a shelter, the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed. It has sued the government over the family separations.
To speed up the reunions, the government will no longer insist on fingerprinting all adults in a household where a child will live, or require home visits by a social worker.
Instead, 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.
A federal judge pressed for faster reunifications Tuesday, when the government said it would miss a court’s deadline of returning at least half of the 102 children younger than 5 years old to a parent by that day.
Judge Dana M. Sabraw of the U.S. 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 ACLU 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 ACLU.
“In essence, the government was asking for parents to apply to obtain their own child back,” he said.
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 Donald 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 the 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 ACLU 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 played out across the country of frustration 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 of young children with parents 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 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.
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,” Levy said.