EL PASO, Texas (AP) — The Trump administration worked Thursday to meet a court-imposed deadline to reunite thousands of children and parents forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, an enormous logistical effort to undo a practice that drew condemnation around the world.
Authorities have identified 2,551 children 5 and older who may be covered by the order, which requires them to be reunited with their parents by the end of day. The effort was expected to fall short, partly because hundreds of parents may have already been deported without their children.
But by focusing only those deemed by the government to be “eligible” for reunification, federal officials were expected to claim success.
As of Tuesday, 1,012 parents had been reunified with children in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hundreds more had been cleared and were just waiting on transportation. The government was expected to provide the judge with an updated count by the end of Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog said it would review the separation of families, along with the conditions at Border Protection facilities where migrant children are held, in response to scores of congressional requests to do so.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told members of Congress on Wednesday that the administration was “on track” to meet the deadline, an assertion that was greeted with disbelief and anger by the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus, according to people who attended. Nielsen declined to comment to reporters as she left the closed-door meeting.
For the last two weeks, children have been arriving steadily at ICE locations in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to be reunited with parents. Faith-based and other groups have provided meals, clothing, legal advice and plane and bus tickets. The families are generally released, and parents are typically given ankle-monitoring bracelets and court dates before an immigration judge.
But confusion and fear linger after reunification.
Jose Dolores Munoz, 36, from El Salvador, was reunited with his 7-year-old daughter Friday, nearly two months after they were separated. His daughter cries when he leaves the house because she thinks he’s not coming back.
“She is afraid,” Munoz said in Spanish. “Yesterday I left her crying, she is telling me, ‘You are not coming back. You are lying. You are leaving me.'”
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego commended the government Tuesday for its recent efforts, calling it “a remarkable achievement.” Yet Sabraw also seized on the government’s assertion that 463 parents may be outside the United States. The Justice Department said this week that the number was based on case files and was under review, signaling it could change.
“It is the reality of a policy that was in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people,” said Sabraw, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush.
Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the separated families, said the government is “letting themselves off the hook” by focusing on those it deems eligible and excluding parents who were deported or haven’t been located.
“I think the critical point to remember is that they are only reunifying by the deadline those families who they are claiming unilaterally are eligible for reunification by the deadline,” he told reporters. “The deadline is the deadline for just those parents and children the government says it can reunite.”
Lourdes de Leon, who turned herself in to immigration authorities, was deported to her native Guatemala on June 7 but her 6-year-old son, Leo, remained in the U.S.
De Leon said Guatemalan consular officials told her signing a deportation order would be the easiest way to reunite with Leo.
“He is in a shelter in New York,” de Leon said. “My baby already had his hearing with a judge who signed his deportation eight days ago. But I still do not know when they are going to return him to me.”
Immigration attorneys said they had advocates on the ground in Central America to help parents who were deported without their children.
Spencer Amdur, another ACLU attorney, said there are three categories of concern: The roughly 1,600 children who “everyone agrees have to be reunified” by Thursday; children whose parents were deported and who must be reunified but not necessarily by Thursday; and others the government deems ineligible, including parents with criminal records or who are suspected of abuse or neglect and some who aren’t really the children’s parents.
Both sides were due in court Friday.
In El Paso, the Annunciation House, which has been assisting dozens of reunited families, said progress has been slow considering Thursday’s deadline. The organization has already received about 250 reunited families. Advocacy group FWD.us has been buying plane tickets for them to quickly leave.
“We are under a logistical 24/7 crisis all-hands-on-deck moment to get through the (Thursday) deadline. We will not stop until all of these children are reunited with their parents and that is regardless of where their parents are,” said Alida Garcia, coalitions and policy director for FWD.us.
The government gives advocates sometimes as little as an hour’s notice when they’re releasing parents and children, Garcia said.
Late last month, Sabraw ordered a nationwide halt to family separations, which President Donald Trump effectively did on his own June 20 following an international outcry. Sabraw issued a 14- day deadline to reunite children under 5 with their parents and 30 days for children 5 and older.
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