Hundreds of migrant children still separated from parents as deadline nears

Hundreds of migrant children still separated from parents as deadline nears
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The Trump administration has just hours before its court-ordered deadline to reunite families it separated at the southern border, but a new court filing Thursday night shows there are still hundreds of parents who have not been reunited with their kids.

The government reported that is has reunited 1,442 children ages 5 and older with their parents who were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and 378 have been “discharged in other appropriate circumstances,” including to a sponsor or to their parents in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody.

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But there are another 711 children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement whose parents are either not eligible for reunification or unavailable.

That figure includes 120 children whose parents waived their right to reunification, 431 children whose parents are outside the U.S. and 94 children for whom the parent’s location is still under review, Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys said in the filing.

In the joint status report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said data from the government shows as many as 468 separated parents were deported without their children. The civil rights group asked the court to reunite those families within seven days of confirming they are members of the class action lawsuit the organization has filed on behalf of parents who wish to be reunited with their children. 

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead attorney in the case, said in a call with reporters Thursday afternoon that it’s not clear whether the parents who were deported without their children did so voluntarily or if they were misled. He said finding the parents won’t be easy. 

The government said in its filing that the court plan for reuniting families "is expected to result in the reunification of all class members found eligible for reunification at this time” by the Thursday deadline.

Government officials also told reporters on a conference call Thursday they expect to meet the court's deadline by later in the evening, saying all eligible parents will be reunited with their children.

Officials with HHS and DHS said the children are in custody for a variety of reasons, and not solely because of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance policy."

Administration officials also disputed reports that the parents who waived their unification rights did not have a choice in the matter. Immigration activists have said they are also concerned parents might have signed away their rights without knowing what they were doing.

"It’s been longstanding ICE policy to allow parents to take their children with them. Many parents declined this opportunity," Matt Albence head of ICE's enforcement and removal operations, told reporters, adding that in many instances, the parents declined.

"We cannot force a parent to take a child ... and we cannot force a child out of the country" without a court order, Albence said.

"The parents had the ability to change their mind," said HHS's Chris Meekins, and if that happens, he said HHS works "expeditiously" to reunite them with their children.

But Gelernt said Thursday afternoon that the families the government is claiming to have reunited  is a "self-select group," asserting the government won’t reunite all of the families it separated.

The government, he said, shouldn’t be proud of work they’re doing on reunification.  

– Updated: 7:21 p.m.