Faced with a court-imposed deadline to reunite families separated at the southwest border, federal authorities are calling in volunteers to sort through records and resorting to DNA tests to match children with parents. And they acknowledged for the first time Thursday that of the nearly 3,000 children who are still in federal custody, about 100 are under the age of 5.
The family separations, part of an aggressive effort by the Trump administration to deter illegal immigration, have produced a chaotic scramble as officials now face political and judicial pressure to reunite families.
Records linking children to their parents have disappeared, and in some cases have been destroyed, according to two officials of the Department of Homeland Security, leaving the authorities struggling to identify connections between family members.
The effort is complicated by the fact that two federal agencies are involved in detaining and sheltering migrants, and they did not initially share records with each other. On Friday, the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services, which shelters the children and must now undertake reunifications, sent out a plea to federal public health workers for help with an exhaustive manual search of records.
The agency said it needed to read through original documents of all children in federal custody “to screen whether children in our facilities were separated from parents.” That involved scrubbing the documents of an estimated 12,000 children to determine which had been separated from their parents by the authorities, as opposed to arriving in the country without a parent or other relative.
“HHS is requesting volunteers over the weekend to review case records,” said one of the emails. “Everyone here is now participating in this process, including the Secretary who personally stayed until past midnight to assist.”
The rushed attempt to confirm identities, locations and connections makes clear what immigrant advocates said from the beginning were potential pitfalls in the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” border enforcement policy, introduced in May. The crackdown, critics said, was announced with little advance notice and, apparently, little planning for how to deal with its far-reaching impacts.
In interviews with federal employees, immigration lawyers and shelter operators, those closest to the process raised questions about the initial assertions that federal authorities could account for the locations of both parents and children after they were separated.
In fact, the Health and Human Services agency charged with overseeing the care of migrant children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, established such procedures, which included identification bracelets, the issuance of registration numbers and careful logs to keep the records of parents and children linked.
But those precautions were undermined in some cases by the other federal agency that has initial custody of apprehended migrants in the first 72 hours after they cross the border — Customs and Border Protection. In hundreds of cases, Customs agents deleted the initial records in which parents and children were listed together as a family with a “family identification number,” according to two officials at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process.
As a result, the parents and children appeared in federal computers to have no connection to one another.
“That was the big problem. We weren’t able to see that information,” said one of the officials, who is directly involved in the reunification process.
Officials cautioned that this was not a deliberate attempt to obfuscate, but a belief that it made more sense to track cases separately once a group of migrants was no longer in custody as a family unit, these sources said.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for DHS, disputed the description of events at the border and said that the agency had always provided clear information to HHS linking parents and children to one another.
“Not only is it categorically false that DHS destroyed records, but the opposite is true: DHS personnel has worked hand-in-hand with HHS personnel to share clear data in the most useful formats possible for HHS – which included names, dates of apprehension, and identifying alien numbers for both children and parents who were separated as a result of zero-tolerance,” she said in a statement.
Over the past week, the Health and Human Services Department has been forced to undertake a herculean effort, deploying hundreds of federal workers, to comply with an injunction of a federal judge in San Diego, who ordered that all families separated under the policy must be reunited by July 26. The deadline for children under the age of 5 was set for Tuesday.
“I think it’s mission impossible,” said José Xavier Orochena, a lawyer in New York representing about a dozen parents whose children were taken from them. Mr. Orochena said that he met this week with the president of a shelter in New York where some of the children are being held. Neither one of them could imagine how the vetting that is required to bring families back together could be completed by the court’s deadline.
“Unless they waive all these requirements,” Mr. Orochena said.
Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said on Thursday that the agency was dealing with nearly 3,000 children separated from families, about 100 of them under the age of 5, but would make the reunifications happen in time.
“HHS is executing on our mission even with the constraints handed down by the courts,” he said, calling the judge’s time limits “extreme.”
He echoed President Trump, who has repeatedly placed blame for the separations outside the executive branch — pointing to policies and court decisions from earlier years that prevent migrant families from being held in detention for extended periods of time.
“Any confusion is due to a broken immigration system and court orders. It’s not here,” Mr. Azar said.
The problem that arose with the missing family identification numbers became apparent as soon as children were shipped away to shelters, agency employees said. Many were dropped off thousands of miles away from their parents and some were too young or scared to speak.
That left hundreds of federal employees, including Mr. Azar himself, to manually review the documents of each individual child over the weekend to look for any references to separation, including anything the child may have told agency employees or shelter workers.
But young children are often unreliable narrators, Mr. Azar said on Thursday, and there has been some confusion. For example, he said, some children might have told shelter workers they had traveled with a parent at some point, but they may not have actually crossed the border together. In those cases, while parent and child may indeed be in separate custody, they are not part of the group forcibly separated by immigration authorities, and thus are not subject to the court-ordered deadline for reunification.
The secretary added that steps could not be skipped in order to meet the court’s deadline, pointing to some parents who had already been weeded out of eligibility for sponsorship of children in the vetting process, which turned up histories of child cruelty and rape, he said.
The announcement Thursday that DNA testing would be used to help confirm family units drew some opposition from immigrant advocates, who said that the records could be used to track undocumented immigrants indefinitely.
Administration officials previously had said about 2,300 children had been separated from their parents. But over the weekend, the agency came up with its final accounting that showed nearly 3,000 in total.
Many questions remained unanswered Thursday about how the process of reunifications would unfold.
The rough plan is for a patchwork series of moves of both parents and children, according to the two immigration officials who described the process. Some of the parents under the plan are to be consolidated in those immigration jails that have extra room and children would be routed to meet them. Other parents, such as those of children who are under 5, have already been moved to the immigration jails nearest to the shelters where their children are being held.
But no pathway was in place as of Thursday for what will happen after the reunifications, for families released from immigration custody on bond or other conditions. Some parents and children will presumably have been moved several states away from their extended families or support networks, the officials said. They may not have the money for transportation back to their families, or even food.
But Mr. Azar insisted Thursday that his agency would meet the court’s deadline. A follow up to the email asking for volunteers to help with the reunification effort began, “Wow!”
Thanks to their efforts, “the mission will be accomplished,” it said. “And everyone should feel satisfied that we are doing our part to reunify the children with their families.”
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