HOUSTON -- Facing a legal deadline to return young migrant children to their parents after their separations at the border, federal officials on Tuesday said they had reunited four families, with an additional 34 reunions scheduled before the end of the day.
A federal judge told the government Tuesday that it must move faster to reunite children taken from their parents at the southwest border, even as President Donald Trump's administration said many separated families aren't eligible for reunification.
From Michigan to Arizona, some of the youngest children placed in government custody as part of the border crackdown were handed over to parents who had been released from detention, given ankle monitors and told to await future deportation proceedings.
A 27-year-old Honduran man who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jose, said his 3-year-old son didn't recognize him at first when they were united in Phoenix on Tuesday. Jose said he tried to kiss and hug the boy, but he was stiff and cried inconsolably.
"I asked him if he was upset with me," Jose said. "And he just looked at me. He didn't say anything and then I prodded him and he said, 'yes.' It broke my heart."
In Grand Rapids, Mich., two boys and a girl who had been in temporary foster care were reunited with their Honduran fathers at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center about three months after they were split up.
The three fathers were "just holding them and hugging them and telling them that everything was fine and that they were never going to be separated again," said immigration lawyer Abril Valdes.
But many other parents and children were still awaiting information about when they would be reunited, despite a court order from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to return all 102 children ages 4 or younger by Tuesday. Sabraw has said that all separated children -- a group the government says numbers "under 3,000," must be reunited with their parents by July 26.
Ricardo de Anda, an immigration lawyer who represents four children under the age of 5 who were being held in Phoenix and New York City, said he had not heard anything from federal officials about reunification plans.
"I'm in touch with all their mothers and nothing has happened," de Anda said from Laredo, Texas. "There's a tight group of asylum lawyers down here, and no one jumped out to say their client was reunited. We are all sort of scratching our heads."
Sabraw said he believed that as many as 63 children could be released Tuesday or soon afterward, if the government streamlined the process and worked harder to locate parents who were no longer detained.
"There's still much time left today," he said from the bench during a late-morning hearing in San Diego. "These are firm deadlines. They're not aspirational goals."
Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian said 75 of the children are eligible for release. Another 27 cannot immediately be reunited for various reasons, she said. Some did not cross the border with their parents. Others have parents who are serving criminal sentences. Some parents have serious criminal histories, including for child abuse, and may be deemed unfit.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the parents in a class-action lawsuit, said U.S. officials "have not even tried" to return 12 children to parents who were deported, and it said officials should have more quickly found eight parents who have been released in the United States.
"Their children are stranded in this country," the ACLU said of the children of deported parents.
The separations sparked national and international anger that crossed party lines and included warnings from health experts that taking children from their parents would inflict significant emotional harm. A Honduran man killed himself in jail after officials took his son away. And a Border Patrol official was caught on tape telling children to stop crying for their mothers and fathers.
Federal officials said they are reunifying as many children as they can and attributed delays to "legitimate logistical impediments" that make it "impossible or excusable" to meet the court's deadlines.
Authorities said in a call with reporters Tuesday that they were performing "due diligence" in reuniting the children and their parents, arguing that the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments are working jointly in an effort to vet and reunite families as quickly and safely as possible.
"Let me be clear: HHS could have transferred every child out of our care to a parent who is currently in DHS custody today if we did not take into account child safety or whether the adult is actually the parent," Chris Meekins of the Health and Human Services Department said during the call.
"Our process may not be as quick as some might like, but there is no question that it is protecting children," Meekins, the chief of staff of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said during the conference call.
At the hearing, Sabraw said separated families should not be subject to the same level of scrutiny as friends or extended family members of children who apply to sponsor children who enter the country alone as unaccompanied minors. In such a case, the government investigates the background not only of the prospective sponsor, but also of everyone else living in the household where the child would live.
"These parents are responsible for their own children," he said. "Many of these determinations we must assume are subject to the parents' judgment and consideration."
Advocates have criticized the government for stalling the releases and for forcing parents who arrived with their children to undergo DNA testing and extensive background checks that had not occurred in the past. They note that many who crossed the border illegally are fleeing violence and abuse in their home countries and want to seek asylum in the United States.
Trump said Tuesday that migrants who want to come to the United States should do so legally. "That's the solution. Don't come to our country illegally," he said. "And remember this: Without borders, you do not have a country."
At the court hearing, government lawyers said they are investigating whether a child who has been in custody for more than a year and was believed to be undocumented is in fact an American citizen.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt called the case "extremely disturbing."
The authorities said reunited families were being released from custody and equipped with ankle monitors to make sure they appeared at scheduled court hearings on their immigration cases.
The final number of children who would be returned Tuesday was still in flux. Meekins said that 14 adults were disqualified from reunification during the vetting process: eight with serious criminal backgrounds including histories of child cruelty and drug crimes, five who were determined not to be the actual parent of the child, and one who was being treated for a communicable disease that would have made reunification unsafe.
There were logistical challenges to the reunifications, too, according to officials close to the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly. The federal agency that oversees the care of migrant children, the Department of Health and Human Services, was still conducting background checks on parents until Tuesday morning. The final number to be reunited had changed as recently as 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Although the parents of the youngest children were being released from custody to await immigration hearings or deportation proceedings, lawyers signaled in court that the government could seek to detain parents and older children after they are reunited. Officials have considered using military installations for that purpose.
Under a federal consent decree, the children would have to be released from detention within 20 days, a protection that was affirmed Monday night when a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected the Trump administration's request to hold minors for longer.
Information for this article was contributed by Maria Sacchetti, Arelis Hernandez, Steve Thompson, Marissa J. Lang and Mark Berman of The Washington Post; by Manny Fernandez and Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times; and by Elliot Spagat, Mike Householder and staff members of The Associated Press.
Ever Reyes Mejia hugs his 3-year-old son after they were reunited Tuesday at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A Section on 07/11/2018
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