The federal judge who ordered the swift reunification of thousands of migrant families sharply chastised the Trump administration late on Friday, after it said that complying with the judge’s order would increase the risk of harm to children.
The Health and Human Services Department outlined a new, more accelerated plan to return nearly 3,000 migrant children to their parents by a July 26 deadline. But it also said that doing so required faster vetting procedures and would probably place the children in abusive environments or with adults falsely claiming to be their parents.
In a court filing that included the new plan, Chris Meekins, the deputy assistant secretary of preparedness and response, said, “While I am fully committed to complying with this court’s order, I do not believe that the placing of children into such situations is consistent with the mission of H.H.S. or my core values.”
The judge, Dana M. Sabraw of Federal District Court in San Diego, was not moved.
“Unfortunately, H.H.S. appears to be operating in a vacuum, entirely divorced from the undisputed circumstances of this case,” he said. Its position, he added, was inconsistent with explicit statements from top government officials — including the president himself — that the reunifications proceed, and quickly.
Judge Sabraw also said that the department had itself sped up its vetting procedures before the court order, and that safe reunifications “can be accomplished in the time and manner prescribed.”
“It is clear from Mr. Meekins’s declaration that H.H.S. either does not understand the court’s orders or is acting in defiance of them,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, Evelyn Stauffer, said in a statement Saturday that the department was trying earnestly to comply with the court order. Its interpretation of the order, she added, was that it need not conduct the fuller vetting process it normally would to ensure the children’s safety.
“In the interests of transparency and cooperation,” Ms. Stauffer said, “the department felt it necessary in our filings on Friday to share with the court our view that meeting the deadline would mean truncating the process we might have otherwise followed.”
The government says in its new reunification plan that it will return up to 200 children per day to their families. Parents in detention will be sent to one of six to eight facilities and vetted using two basic checks, one for criminal history and another to confirm parentage. Then the child will be moved to that facility within 24 to 48 hours.
It is still unclear whether the government will seek to keep some of the families in detention long-term, or release them into the country using ankle monitors to track the parents. At least some have already been moved into family detention centers, where the government can legally hold them for up to 20 days, according to Bridget Cambria, a lawyer representing a Brazilian father and son who were reunited on Friday at one such facility, the Berks Detention Center in Pennsylvania.
Ms. Cambria said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had flown the father from El Paso to Chicago, first to meet his son, and then flew them together to the detention center, which is near Reading, Pa. While the young boy seemed happy on Friday, an unknown future awaited the family, she said.
“Sitting with him today, he looked 1,000 times better than he did before,” Ms. Cambria said. “He wouldn’t let go of his dad, but he should be able to be in a community-based environment to deal with the trauma he has gone through and not be sitting in detention.”
She said she represented another Brazilian father and his son, 16, who was in Chicago; they, however, had a different outcome. They both were released to a sponsor in New England and prepared to apply for asylum.
The government’s plan was filed after a hearing in a lawsuit against the government over its family separation practice, and a chaotic week of down-to-the-wire reunions of a small subset of the separated children — those under 5 years old — with some false starts and delays.
The administration faces a much more daunting task ahead. Only 57 children under the age of 5 were reunited in the first phase, while 2,551 other children remain in custody, according to the latest government estimates.
Judge Sabraw on Friday laid out a set of intermediary deadlines, intended to prevent the last-minute execution of the first phase. He said that the government must confirm all parent-child relationships by July 19, a week before the final reunification deadline, and give at least 12 hours’ notice before a reunification of the location and identities of the parent and child.
Advocates hoped that the new deadlines would allow them to mobilize in time to provide the reunited families with emergency shelter, clothing and food. Many of the families will be released in states far away from their relatives or support networks. Some were released last week without any money or place to go, including the mother of a 6-month-old baby who, according to court documents, was left by immigration agents at a bus station until she obtained a bus ticket around midnight.
Still, the judge was pleased with the government’s progress over all.
“The parties are really working through the issues in a very measured and successful way given the enormity of the undertaking,” he said.
Family separations began quietly last fall and ramped up in May with the announcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. After a thunderous public outcry, they halted abruptly on June 20 with an executive order from President Trump, who reiterated his commitment to tough immigration enforcement but drew the line at family separation.
The government failed to meet its Tuesday deadline for reunifying children under 5, but had done so for all who were eligible by the end of the week.
To streamline the process, the government said it would use DNA testing sparingly to confirm parentage. It would rely on documentation and what Judge Sabraw called “common sense” in the vast majority of cases, to make the reunifications happen more quickly.
Questions remain about the futures of children whose parents have been deported without them, which Judge Sabraw called “one of the disturbing realities of this situation.” He set a deadline of seven days for returning those children to their parents once the government had secured the documents necessary for them to travel.
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