The Trump administration said Tuesday it is on track to reunite the majority of separated migrant families ahead of a July 26 court deadline, but workers are still sorting through case files to determine whether hundreds of parents were deported without their children.
Government attorneys told U.S. District Court Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who mandated the reunifications last month and has overseen the process, that the government has given 1,012 parents their children back so far, out of 2,551 who were separated.
Hundreds more families are due to be reunited by the judge’s Thursday deadline, the attorneys said, which Sabraw praised as “a remarkable achievement.”
But the judge was less pleased with the government’s inability to say how many migrant parents have already been deported, or released from custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into the interior of the United States.
Sabraw ordered the government to provide those lists to the court by noon Wednesday, and suggested the administration has not been transparent about the whereabouts of 463 parents whose files indicate they are no longer in the United States.
The San Diego judge, who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2003, said the lack of information reflected disorganization at the heart of the Trump administration’s family separation system, which Trump halted in a June 20 executive order.
“Some of this information is unpleasant, but it’s the reality of the case, and the reality of a policy that was put in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people,” he said.
“It appears there’s a large number of parents who are unaccounted for or who may have been removed without their child, and that is a deeply troubling reality.”
Attorneys for the government said the 463 cases are under review, cautioning that the figure did not necessarily reflect the number sent back without their children.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiff in the case, asked Sabraw to extend the amount of time that reunited families may be allowed to remain in the United States before the government attempts to deport them, so they may consult with attorneys about their legal options.
Sabraw last week gave families a one-week reprieve, after the ACLU argued that parents who have been forced apart from their children lacked information about their legal rights, and were in no position to make momentous decisions about their immigration cases. Many of the parents say they are fleeing violence and poverty and want to seek asylum in the United States.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said he expected hundreds of reunited families to arrive at a family detention center in Karnes City, Tex., in coming days. He provided the judge with affidavits featuring testimony from separated parents he said were not given sufficient time to make informed decisions.
“Things are really a mess on the ground,” Gelernt told Sabraw. “Parents are put in groups of 50 and told, ‘Here are your basic rights; you have three minutes to sign these forms.’ I think you’re going to be shocked when you see these affidavits, how little the parents understood.”
Gelernt’s characterization was challenged by Deputy Attorney General Scott Stewart, who said the Trump administration has made a “tremendous effort to reunify” the separated families. “We have many reasons to be proud,” he said.
The judge said he would revisit the issue in a hearing later this week.
The Trump administration has insisted that all of the migrant parents it deported without their children gave their written consent. But the ACLU and other immigrant advocates dispute that, insisting many parents were railroaded onto deportation flights to Central America without understanding their rights and in a state of distress after their children were taken away.
Sabraw has instructed the government to expedite the reunification process for parents whose cases presented no major concerns, such as a serious criminal records or doubts about the parentage of the adult. About 900 parents who had “red flags” in their cases, including those already sent out of the country, will be reassessed in a subsequent phase.
Sabraw had also mandated the return of more than 100 children under age 5 by July 10; the government said it reunited all those whose parents were eligible.
The government said Tuesday it had tallied 127 parents who have declined to take their children back, opting to be deported without them. Attorneys said those parents likely intend for their children to remain with other relatives living in the United States while their immigration claims are adjudicated.