The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C. command center, officials work to reunite migrant children by court deadline

Jelsin Aguilar Padilla shakes the hand of immigration attorney Jorge L. Baron after stepping off his flight from New York into the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as he is reunited with his mother, Yolany in Seattle. The court-ordered reunification of more than 2,500 children separated from their parents is being coordinated from a special command center at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Rebekah Welch/AP)

Inside an emergency command bunker high above the Mall, teams of federal workers are sifting through the case files of migrant children, matching them to parents in U.S. immigration jails and planning their reunions.

The room on the sixth floor of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Hubert H. Humphrey Building, with banks of computer terminals and wraparound television screens, is typically used to handle public health epidemics or hurricanes.

But this is a cleanup operation of a different sort.

A federal judge has ordered the government to return, by next Thursday, as many as possible of the more than 2,500 migrant children seized from their parents during the Trump administration’s ill-fated “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.

HHS officials in charge of the operation say they are doing everything they can to give the children back quickly and safely, working round-the-clock to meet U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw’s deadline, or least demonstrate enough progress to keep him convinced it’s a good-faith effort.

On Thursday the agency allowed a small group of reporters to see their emergency responders toiling inside the Secretary’s Operations Center at HHS.

The work is slow. Separations that took minutes require weeks to repair, coordinated among multiple federal agencies and layered with background checks and fraud safeguards. HHS had to improvise a parent-child reunification system on the fly because the Trump administration didn’t have one until a few weeks ago.

But after Trump caved to public outrage and abruptly froze his family-separation system, Sabraw issued an injunction giving the government 30 days to reunite the children with their mothers and fathers.

“This is a novel process,” said Cmdr. Jonathan White, a social worker and top HHS emergency-response official working in the bunker. Short and trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and khaki fatigues, he is the kind of fast-talking fix-it-man usually flown in after catastrophe strikes.

This time he has been deployed deep into the federal bureaucracy, figuring out how the government can quickly confirm parental relationships and run criminal background checks before delivering children to their mothers and fathers at immigration jails scattered along the border.

“We’ve never had a flow of children to ICE facilities,” said White, referring to adult detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That’s new for us.”

In most cases, parents being reunited with their children are fitted with an ankle monitoring bracelet, assigned a court date and released. The government can’t continue to hold them en masse, because U.S. courts don’t allow children to be jailed long-term in adult detention facilities and ICE’s “family residential centers” are mostly full.

By midnight Wednesday, federal officials had reunited 364 of the 2,500 children ages 5 to 17 with their parents, according to a court filing Thursday. Officials said they have identified 1,600 adults who may be eligible to be reunited with their children, but only about half have been interviewed and cleared. Slightly more than 90 have been deemed ineligible because of criminal records and other reasons, but hundreds of cases are still pending review.

The work of reuniting migrant families was further complicated, HHS officials said Thursday, because case workers started the process with no clear way of knowing who among the nearly 12,000 migrant children in federal custody after crossing the border were those taken from their parents.

The problem was plain to see in the HHS software shown to reporters, which lacks a data-entry field to label children who are separated minors. Unless the U.S. border agents who took the families into custody included such details in the “notes” field of a child case file, there was nothing to distinguish the separated children from the much larger group of underage migrants who arrived in the United States without a parent.

The data system was designed to process such “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” and place them with sponsors, agency spokesman Mark Webber said. “What it wasn’t designed to do is the quick match” with parents.

When Sabraw issued his June 26 injunction ordering the separated minors to be swiftly returned, case workers had to go through files by hand to build a new database, said Chris Meekins, chief of staff for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Top officials were enlisted in an effort that took “600 to 700 man-hours,” Meekins said. “Even the [HHS] Secretary [Alex Azar] did it for a period of time.”

HHS said it has about 50 case workers at headquarters dedicated to meeting the court-ordered reunification deadlines, and another 200 staffers and contractors elsewhere. The department has not said what it is spending to ensure compliance with the judge’s orders.

Those working on the effort at the terminals in the emergency command center Thursday included senior agency officials such as Maggie Wynne, an HHS counselor who is the agency’s former director of anti-trafficking policy.

Wynne has worked for years to ensure that the agency doesn’t hand over migrant children to traffickers, sex offenders or others who would endanger their welfare.

The extensive safeguards that she and others have put in place became a source of tension during court proceedings last week, when Sabraw told HHS to speed up the vetting process by only running exhaustive checks when there’s cause for concern.

Wynne lamented that the expedited process constitutes a “lower threshold” for reunions.

Sabraw issued his ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union before the administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border took effect.

His order gave the government until July 10 to reunite about 100 children ages 4 and under with their parents. HHS said last week that it has reunited slightly more than half of that group. Others could not be returned because their parents had been deported, had criminal histories of varying severity or were serving time in jail. Parents who were not eligible to regain custody by the judge’s deadlines can seek to reunite with their children later.

For the older group, federal officials have said they planned to reunite up to 200 children a day. Most had been matched to a parent as of Monday, officials said this week, but background checks remained pending for hundreds of the parents.

At least some of the reunifications completed so far were not executed smoothly; court records describe widespread confusion about release dates and times, and instances of children returned to parents late in the middle of the night.

The Trump administration this week published a bulletin, titled “The Tri-Department Plan for Stage II of Family Reunifications,” that gives a step-by-step guide to the vetting process.

It said HHS performs background checks on parents using Homeland Security and FBI databases, while working to confirm the adult who arrived with the child is the actual parent. If “red flags” sow doubts, the agency will use DNA testing.

Case managers assess potential risks to “child safety” that could include possible threats to the child, according to the plan. Absent major concerns, HHS interviews the parent to make sure they wish to be reunited with the child, and makes arrangements to escort the child to the parent.

At that point ICE will decide whether to offer the family supervised release. This is Step 5, visualized in the government’s plan by a tiny hand cradled in a larger one.