The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Trump administration to stop distributing a government form that offers to reunite detained migrant parents with their children once the parents are ready to be deported from the United States.
The form has sparked the latest flareup over the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which drew international outrage for separating about 2,500 children from their parents over the span of a few weeks.
On June 26, a federal judge halted the separations in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and ordered immigration officials to reunite the families within 30 days. Children under 5 must be reunited within two weeks, and parents are supposed to have an opportunity to speak to their children by Friday.
The judge also barred the government from deporting parents without their children unless the adults voluntarily agreed to go.
Federal officials said they created the form to comply with the judge’s order and ensure that parents and children can be deported together. Parents may also opt to leave without their children, who may seek permission to remain in the United States on their own. Officials said parents can use the form — whose existence was first reported by NBC News — after they have had a chance to make their case for asylum or another form of relief.
“Parents who are ordered removed can elect to be removed with or without their children. Neither choice has any bearing on the alien’s eligibility to apply for protections available to them under the law,” ICE spokeswoman Jennifer D. Elzea said in a statement. “This form has absolutely nothing to do with those who have pending asylum claims.”
But the Trump administration has not disclosed its full plans for complying with the order to reunite parents and children. A week after the ruling, officials could not say Tuesday how many families remain apart.
Lawyers say they are concerned that detained parents desperate to locate their children may sign the form and give up their right to try to remain in the United States in order to get their children back.
Gracie Willis, an Atlanta-based lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said at least four parents who do not have final deportation orders described being given the form by ICE officials in a Folkston, Ga., detention center over the past week. She said the migrants refused to sign it. “For those folks it’s confusing. I think it could be coercive,” she said. “It’s certainly misleading.”
Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead attorney in the lawsuit, said that “there’s no reason the government should be asking about removal at the same time as reunification . . . The ruling makes clear that parents are entitled to get their children back” without being “contingent upon them waiving their right to contest removal.”
More information is expected Friday at a hearing in the ACLU’s lawsuit, which was initially filed on behalf of a Congolese mother separated from her 6-year-old daughter after arriving in the United States last fall.
In his ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw said the separations turned “chaotic” in May after the Trump administration announced its new “zero tolerance” policy, which declared that the federal government would criminally prosecute all unauthorized border crossers and send their children, including babies, to shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Trump administration said it wanted to stem the rising numbers of families who cross the border illegally and request asylum, knowing they will probably be released to await immigration proceedings because of a lack of detention bed space for families.
Some advocates said the ruling could mean migrants will be released with an ankle monitoring device or some other alternative to detention.
But the Trump administration has also moved to deport migrants quickly or detain families longer, possibly at military installations or in family detention camps.