ACLU Urges Government to Reunite Immigrant Families Within a Month

A migrant mother walks with her two daughters on their way to the port of entry to ask for asylum in the U.S. on June 21, 2018.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

UPDATED: June 26, 10:36 a.m.

On Tuesday, the government responded to the ACLU's complaint. Read the full response here.

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A federal judge in San Diego is expected to rule this week on what to do for roughly 2,000 immigrant children still being held in facilities far from their parents, and whether to limit future separations except with rare exceptions.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a proposal for the court to consider. The June 25 brief urges U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to require the government to:

  1. Reunify all children with their parents within 30 days, and within 10 days for children under 5 years old, except where the government has clear evidence that the parent is unfit or a danger to the child, or the parent is in a criminal facility that does not house minors;
  2. Provide parents, within seven days, telephone contact with their children;
  3. Stop separating children from their parents except where there is clear evidence that the parent is unfit or a danger to the child, or the parent is in a criminal facility that does not house minors;
  4. Not remove separated parents from the United States without their children, unless the parent affirmatively, knowingly, and voluntarily waives the right to reunification before removal.

Sabraw has moved up the deadline for the U.S. government to reply to the ACLU's proposal to Tuesday at 9 a.m., suggesting he may rule on the issue this week.

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As public protests erupted over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement reporting the government had reunited 522 children with their parents, as of June 20, and would continue to bring families back together in the coming weeks. President Trump's June 22 executive order ended the separation of undocumented children from parents who are being prosecuted or facing deportation for illegal entry into the U.S.

But ACLU Attorney Lee Gelernt told KQED there's nothing in the order that says anything about reuniting the 2,000 other children still separated from their parents.

"Children are crying themselves to sleep, clinging to pictures of their parents," Gelernt said. "And you know these are the ones who even know what's going on. Some of the kids are just babies less than a year old."

The ACLU filed a complaint early this year seeking strict limits on the government’s separation of immigrant families — a practice attorneys argued has become frequent and arbitrary under the Trump administration.

Government Defends Efforts to Reunite Families

In a June 23 press release, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that, “The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families.”

DHS made assurances that parents know the location of their children and have “regular communication after separation to ensure that those adults who are subject to removal are reunited with their children for the purposes of removal.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun tracking family members throughout the detention and removal process, according to the statement, and has special detention units for separated parent.

The agency also said it has worked with Health and Human Services to reunite children with parents before they depart the United States.

But in court documents the ACLU countered that “the evidence demonstrates that these recent steps are woefully inadequate even to allow communication between parents and children, much less to reunite them.”

Lawyers gave examples of parents who had tried to use a hotline number to find the children that have been taken from them, only to receive a busy signal or, in cases where they reached an operator, to be put on hold for 30 minutes. They argued that "it is infeasible for detained parents to stay on the line that long.”

"If the government is left to follow its existing practices -- which put the onus on parents to request reunification with their children, and without any reliable system in place for them to do so -- the overwhelming majority of children will not be reunited any time in the near future," concluded the ACLU. "That will mean that more and more children will suffer irreparable harm.”

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