A federal judge in California on Monday temporarily blocked the government from deporting families that were recently reunited after being separated by immigration authorities at the Southwest border.
Judge Dana Sabraw of the U.S. District Court in San Diego granted a request to allow families extra time to discuss the "momentous" and "exceedingly complex" decision of whether to leave the United States or continue to fight their immigration cases.
Normally, families would have days or weeks to consider such a decision, but the separation of families and the rush to reunite them in response to an earlier court order has rendered such discussions difficult for most.
The request for a stay, made by the American Civil Liberties Union, came after the government last week said it was prepared to move quickly to carry out large numbers of reunifications in the coming weeks, facing a July 26 court deadline for returning all eligible separated children to their parents.
The ACLU and other migrant advocates raised concerns that swift reunifications could also lead to swift deportations, which could limit due process. In its request to the judge, the ACLU pointed to "persistent and increasing rumors -- which defendants have refused to deny -- that mass deportations may be carried out imminently and immediately upon reunification."
Sabraw imposed a delay of at least a week.
Justice Department attorney Scott Stewart opposed the delay but did not address the rumors in court.
The ACLU requested that parents have at least one week to decide whether to pursue asylum in the U.S. after they are reunited with their children. The judge held off on deciding that issue until the government outlines its objections in writing by next Monday.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told reporters that he was "extremely pleased" by the halt and that parents need time to think over with their children and advisers whether to seek asylum.
The advocates were reacting, in part, to the stories of people like Celia Del Carmen Delgado, a Guatemalan who said she initially agreed to deportation because an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Texas told her that if she did, she would be reunited with her 3-year-old daughter, Adela. Delgado said she never spoke with a lawyer before she made the decision. But even after she agreed, her daughter was not immediately returned, she said. "When the moment came," she said, "it was just me, and I said, 'No.'"
When she was told she would be deported without her child, Delgado said, her whole body began to shake, and she had to be restrained by force. She said other mothers around her were fainting.
Some parents appeared to have been so overcome with anguish after being separated from their children that they were not sure what they had agreed to in order to get them back. Two fathers in New York originally told their lawyer, Mario Russell of Catholic Charities, that they had accepted deportation orders while they were in custody as a condition for the recovery of their children. But after their families were reunited, the fathers said they were unsure. Russell was trying to clarify with the government.
Immigrant advocates worried that swift reunifications could lead to swift deportations, perhaps at the expense of due process. They also worried about misinformation. Before the court began overseeing the reunification process, many parents in immigration detention had been presented with a form, according to court documents, that suggested they had two options: be reunited with their children and deported or continue to fight their cases while remaining apart.
The ACLU said the government was transporting families across states without notifying legal counsel, that lawyers were being kept out of reunifications and that the government was not providing notice of reunifications 12 hours in advance, as the judge has ordered.
CHILDREN ON PLANES
The hearing in San Diego occurred as the government accelerated reunifications at eight unidentified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement locations. The families are scattered across the country, the adults at immigration detention centers, the children at shelters overseen by the government.
Nearly all of the separated children, who are now housed in 106 locations nationwide, will be funneled into eight "staging locations," the government said in court. The releases are expected to occur quickly, between six and 48 hours after a detained child has been approved for reunification.
"Defendants are devoting extraordinary resources to comply fully with this court's orders, and to do so in good faith," the government said in a legal filing.
Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso, said the government has begun transporting children in a "tremendous amount of airline flights" to El Paso and elsewhere. Director Ruben Garcia said he is preparing to take in as many as 100 reunified families a day.
The government said in court Monday that its latest tally shows that 2,551 migrant children between the ages of 5 and 17 who were separated from their families are in government custody. Of those, 1,317 have been cleared for reunification with their parents by the Department of Health and Human Services, though as of Monday, only about 300 had approval for release from a second federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Jonathan White, a senior official at the Health and Human Services Department, testified on behalf of the government that the parents of 71 children still have not been identified.
Sabraw said in court that the temporary stay on deportations must not delay family reunifications, and, where necessary, the government needs to make sure it can house parents together with their children. "If space is an issue, the government will have to make space," he said.
He commended the government for a revised plan submitted over the weekend to reunify the older children. The plan calls for DNA testing and other screening measures only if red flags are raised during background checks.
The government had pushed back against a more streamlined vetting process because of concerns that it could result in children being placed with adults who are not actually their parents or who have violent criminal records. White testified that some adults who have already been weeded out in the vetting process had criminal histories that included rape and kidnapping.
White of the Office of Refugee Resettlement assured the judge that some reunifications of older children already occurred, and "it is our intent to reunify children promptly." He went into detail on how the process was working.
The judge praised White's testimony, saying, "What is in place is a great start to making a large number of reunifications happen very, very quickly."
"I have every confidence that you are the right person to do this," he told White.
It was a sharp change from Friday, when the government submitted a plan for "truncated" vetting that excluded DNA testing and other procedures used for children under 5. The government official said the abbreviated vetting was necessary to meet the court-imposed deadline but put children at significant risk.
Sabraw said late Friday that he was having second thoughts about his belief that the government was acting in good faith. In a conference call, he told administration officials that its plan misrepresented his instructions and showed "a very grudging reluctance to do things."
Sabraw said in court Monday that the initial plan was "exasperating," "completely unhelpful," and "written in a manner that seemed wholly divorced from the context of this case."
"This is not hard stuff," he said. "It's laborious, but it's not difficult to do."
Justice Department attorneys also assured Sabraw the children were well cared for, offering him a visit to a shelter if he wanted. The judge replied that the main concern wasn't whether the children were well cared for.
"Obviously the concern that has been at issue has been the passage of time," he said. "No matter how nice the environment is, it's the act of separation from a parent, particularly with young children, that matters."
Sabraw scolded the government once again for taking too long to vet parents before reuniting them with their children. "It is failing in this context," the judge said.
Sabraw has scheduled three more hearings over the next two weeks to ensure compliance with his order.
Also Monday, advocates said in federal court in Los Angeles that migrant children in government custody are being given poor food, kept in unsanitary conditions and face insults and threats.
The allegations came amid a long-running effort by attorneys to have a court-appointed monitor oversee the U.S. government's compliance with a decades-old settlement governing the treatment of children caught on the border.
Attorneys interviewed parents and children in June and July about their experiences in Border Patrol facilities, family detention and a youth shelter. They described much of the testimony as "shocking and atrocious."
Families described meals of frozen sandwiches and spoiled food, overflowing toilets and guards yelling at them and kicking them while they slept. Children said they were hungry and scared when their parents were taken away.
Information for this article was contributed by Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times; and by Elliot Spagat, Colleen Long, Amy Taxin and Morgan Lee of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/17/2018
Print Headline: Family deportations blocked; U.S. judge sides with ACLU on behalf of reunited migrants